Planning a funeral for a child who died before, during, or shortly after birth is a difficult process. Not only because the death of any child is heartbreaking, but also because logistically, the typical funeral service isn’t geared towards honoring the briefest of lives.
This post is a comprehensive list of choices and options in planning a funeral for your infant child. Being American, some details are specific to the United States, but many are generally applicable. And if there is something else you would like to see, please comment below or contact me.
Should I or Do I Have to Have a Funeral for my Child?
When your child dies before many or any people outside your immediate family were able to meet them, it is common to wonder if you “have to” or “should” have a funeral. The answer really depends on you. You are under no obligation to hold any type of event, but if you want to hold a service to honor your child, anything you plan will be appropriate.
If you child died early in pregnancy, this may add an additional layer of complication to your decision. You may have not announced your pregnancy yet, or you may wonder if others will understand your need to honor the young life. What matters most here, though, is what is important to you. There is no minimum gestation to “qualify” for a burial or ceremony.
Something you should know is that in some jurisdictions, regardless of whether you hold a service, you may be required to either bury or cremate a fetus if delivered at or after 20 weeks gestation. Your hospital or prenatal provider will be able to provide additional details if this applies where you live.
When to have a Funeral for your Child
You may want to hold a service immediately for religious reasons, or you may want to wait if you need time to process or wait for important friends or family members to attend.
Timing may also be affected by your decisions regarding disposition of your child’s body, and whether you want an open casket at the service. For these reasons, some families may hold the burial or cremation soon after the child’s death, and then hold the service later.
If you don’t hold a service immediately, there is no reason you can’t hold one weeks, months, or even years after your child’s death. I held both a funeral and a memorial event for my son. There is no time limit on honoring your child’s life.
Paying for your Child’s Funeral
Depending upon the options you choose, funerals can become expensive. One funeral planning service estimates the cost to range between $6,000-$12,000, not including costs of cemetery, markers, or decorations, and many families are not equipped to pay this.
Some potential options to pay for or assist with funeral expenses:
- If you have life insurance, some policies will automatically cover a fetus once you have reached 20 weeks gestation. Consult your policy or call your insurance agent to inquire
- Ask your hospital if they offer any services. Some hospitals can arrange for free or low-cost burial or cremation, and some also offer individual or periodic group memorial events
- If you choose to arrange an individual service, ask your funeral home if they offer discounts for services for infants
- Several charities offer assistance with specific costs associated with funeral planning. A handful of charities are listed at the bottom of this post, but you may also want to check with your hospital’s social worker or local support groups for any other references
Who should plan your Child’s Funeral?
Some parents find comfort in making the funeral arrangements themselves, while others prefer a less hands-on approach. Many fall somewhere in between, selecting decisions that are important to them while leaving the bulk of the details to a friend or family member or funeral director.
Some key decisions you may want to make yourself:
- Disposition of your child’s body
- Type & location of ceremony
- Officiant or type of officiant
- Approval of wording of obituary and/or funeral invitation
- Invitation list
- Readings, music, or other portions of the ceremony that feel important to you
- Whether you want a gathering after the funeral
If you have friends or family who have offered or asked how they can help, take them up on it by asking for help with the pieces you don’t want to handle personally.
Disposition of your Child’s Body
One of the hardest decisions to make after your child’s death is what to do with his or her body. You may choose burial in a cemetery or on private land, or you may choose cremation and then bury the ashes, scatter them, or keep them with you at home. There is also a relatively new option called “green” or “natural” burial, where your child is buried without preservation in a biodegradable coffin or shroud.
Some factors to consider when choosing amongst your options:
Factors to consider for burial or burial/scattering of ashes:
- Do you have a preference regarding whether or not your child is embalmed?
- Is there a physical location that is meaningful to you and/or for your child?
- Will you remain situated in or near the city or land where you bury your child?
- If you choose a cemetery, do you prefer one with a specified religious association?
- If you choose a cemetery, what are the policies surrounding visitation, headstones and other markers, permanent plants, and temporary decorations?
- Are you able to purchase the headstone or grave marker from any vendor, or only through the funeral home or cemetery?
- Does the cemetery contain a childrens’ section? Would you prefer to bury your child in the childrens’ section or would you rather he or she be buried in a family plot?
- If you are interested in breaking ground on the grave and/or sprinkling the first dirt after lowering the casket, do cemetery policies allow for this?
- If you are interested in green or natural burial, does the cemetery allow for this?
- If you choose to bury your child on private land, do you know the local laws in your jurisdiction? At a minimum, you will likely need a permit. Some jurisdictions do not allow burial on private land at all.
Factors to consider for cremation:
- Cremation results in a relatively small amount of cremated remains, consisting of both ashes and small pieces of bone. Depending upon the weight of the child at death, the cremated remains of an infant may be very small, ranging from less than a cubic inch to about two cups. Some crematoria will cremate personal items with your child, which may increase the amount of resultant remains.
- Some crematoria allow family members to view the cremation process. Are you interested in viewing this process?
- Following cremation, would you prefer to bury or scatter your child’s remains, or would you prefer to keep them at home? Or a combination of the above?
- Are you interested in including your child’s cremated remains in jewelry, tattoos, other artwork, or other keepsakes?
- If you choose to keep your child’s remains at home, what are your plans for eventual disposition after you or your spouses’ death?
Factors to consider for either burial or cremation:
- If you are holding a service, is it important to you that your child’s body be present during the service?
- If you child is cremated, is it important that cremation happen prior to or after the service?
- If you are partnered, how does your partner feel about these matters?
Types and Elements of Funerals or Services
Funeral types, customs, and traditions vary amongst cultures and geographic regions.
Some of the most common American ceremonies are described below:
- Funeral, with or without a religious service – Generally a ceremony or service held in a chapel or other building. The casket is usually present, and the funeral is followed by burial or cremation
- Graveside Service and Burial – A ceremony or service held at the graveside and usually including burial
- Memorial Service or Celebration of Life – A ceremony or service held after cremation or burial
- Party/Birthday Party – A less formal event, generally meant to be more of a celebration
None of the terms or ceremonies described here are inviolate or immune from modification. If it feels right to you, combine the elements that feel most appropriate to honor your child.
Choosing an officiant:
If you are holding a formal religious ceremony, your officiant will likely be a religious leader of your faith. If you are holding a secular ceremony, with or without religious elements, you may choose a professional officiant or a close friend or family member. If you would prefer a professional officiant, your funeral home may be able to provide recommendations.
Some ceremony elements you may want to consider or include:
- Visitation prior to the formal ceremony, with or without refreshments – Generally scheduled for a range of time prior to the formal ceremony. Attendees may sign the guestbook, speak with the family, eat refreshments, or sit quietly in contemplation
- Your Child’s Casket – If your child’s casket or coffin is present during the ceremony, it may be preplaced, or it may be carried or transported in. You may discuss details with the funeral director or planner. If your child was cremated prior to the ceremony, you may also choose to display his or her urn
- Welcome or introduction by the officiant – A short opening speech
- The story of your child and your family – The officiant or another designated individual provides a brief history of the details you wish shared about your child’s life
- Eulogy or eulogies – Given by family or close friends, a eulogy is a speech about the impact of your child’s life. Parents will sometimes speak, but not always
- Prayers, passages, poetry, quotes, meditations, stories, and/or music – Pieces that feel appropriate or right for you. If you or a close friend or family member sings or plays an instrument, you can include a live performance. Still Birth Day and Very Well Family both maintain suggestions for religious passages, poetry, and music to use during a funeral. Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support also offers a book for sale with resources.
- Formal religious or spiritual elements – Elements that feel appropriate or are required as part of your religion. Some funerals are also a religious service or mass
- Time for impromptu eulogies, memories, or other statements from attendees – Less structured than a eulogy, these are generally short speeches given by attendees
- A meaningful or symbolic group activity – Many funerals end with a symbolic release of items such as butterflies, balloons, or paper lanterns. However, there is some controversy, and depending upon your location, even legal ordinance, preventing some of these activities. Alternative options include lighting a candle, blowing bubbles, or handing out packets of flower seeds
- Informal gathering – An informal event following the formal ceremony, generally a meal in a restaurant or at home. It may be open to all attendees or only to a smaller invited group
These elements may be completed in whatever order feels appropriate to you. Some examples of ceremonies used by other families are available here.
Other Items to Consider:
- Time of day – Is there a time of day that feels special to you? If you have attendees traveling from outside the area, you may also want to consider travel time for them
- Dress – It is an American custom to wear dark colors or black to a funeral, but it is not required. If you would like attendees to wear something different, please indicate your wishes in your child’s obituary or funeral invitation
- Food – Another American tradition is to provide food; however, this is also not required. If you would like to provide food, you can do something small like coffee and pastries during visitation or prior to the ceremony, or as large as a full meal following the ceremony
- Program – You may wish to prepare a program or short booklet to give to attendees at the funeral. Your funeral director may be able to assist with programs, or you can create your own. Some sample programs are available here.
- Guestbook – While optional, a guestbook is a good way to remember the funeral attendees. If you choose a guestbook, you may want to consider one with space for attendees to write messages
- Photography & Videography – It may seem odd to consider photography or videography during a funeral, but as with taking photos after the death of your child, it is a one-time event that cannot be repeated. You may want photos to document the display of your child’s things, or to remember the loved ones supporting your family. You may want videography especially to document the eulogies and/or any other special parts of the ceremony. You may put these photos away and never look at them again, or you may find you treasure them. But if you find you want them later and don’t have them, you can’t go back and change your mind.
Choosing a Funeral Home
Most hospitals maintain a list of funeral homes, but are generally not allowed to recommend one over another. I made my decision by reviewing the websites of the options nearby, and also by reading reviews online. I also felt comfortable when I met the funeral director, and he seemed like someone I wanted to work with.
Some potential questions to ask when evaluating a funeral home:
- What types of services do you offer? Do you offer both burial and cremation services for infants? Do you offer green burial services?
- Do you have a crematorium in-house or do you work with a separate facility?
- Do you cremate babies individually? If so, do you charge extra to cremate individually?
- Can you guarantee I will receive all of my child cremated remains?
- Do you allow family members to view the cremation?
- Do you offer discounted fees for infant services?
- Do you arrange for transportation of my child from my home or the hospital, and if needed, from the chapel to the cemetery?
- If I want to transport my child myself, is that allowed?
- Do you file for the death certificate for me?
- Do you handle permits for burial?
- Do you have a chapel on site?
- Do you have a chaplain or list of available chaplains or secular funeral officiants?
- Do you allow and do you have an appropriate place for refreshments?
- Do you allow family members to visit the deceased child prior to the funeral?
- How soon after death must I schedule a funeral to have an open-casket service?
- Do you require embalming for an open-casket service?
- Do you require that I purchase the casket and/or urn from your facility? Am I allowed to purchase these items elsewhere?
- Do you have preferred vendors for flowers, printed materials, or refreshments? Am I allowed to purchase these items elsewhere?
- If I purchase cremation jewelry or other keepsake items, will you transfer my child’s cremated remains into them for me?
Location of your Child’s Funeral
There are multiple options for the location of the funeral. If you are religious, you may want to hold the funeral at your preferred house of worship, or in the chapel at your funeral home. You can also hold a ceremony at a community center, beach, park, at the graveside, or even in your own home. If your child will be cremated, some families chose to hold a ceremony prior to or during the cremation, at the crematorium.
Obituary and Funeral Announcement or Invitation
Crafting an obituary for an infant can be especially difficult because many of the standard elements do not apply. Some families incorporate elements of their memories of pregnancy or their wishes for the child into the obituary in place of a summary of the child’s life. You may also be interested in poetry, religious passages, or quotes that feel meaningful to you.
Obituaries may include:
- Name and parents’ names and potentially extended family information
- Birth information and statistics
- Family members’ memories of planning for the child and/or pregnancy
- If applicable, any memories of the child’s life or favorite stories
- Religious prayers or passages
- Poetry or quotes
- If the funeral is open to readers of the obituary, include funeral details
The blog Baby Dekar includes several examples of obituaries used for infants.
Some additional examples of obituaries used by other families are available here.
While obituaries are often used as the announcement of the funeral, you may also send announcements or invitations separately, especially if you want to ensure receipt by specific individuals.
A funeral invitation should include:
- Details about the ceremony
- If applicable, hours for the wake or visitation
- If applicable, preferred dress, e.g. “wear bright colors”
- (Optional) In lieu of flowers, please “…”
- If applicable, details on any social gathering to follow
- Whether you request an RSVP
Requesting an RSVP is uncommon, but not unheard of. RSVPs can be used to ensure sufficient programs or refreshments, or a large enough venue.
Because of the time sensitivity of the event, invitations are often made by phone or sent by email. They can also be posted in social media groups for family or close friends, or even sent by text. Examples of funeral invitations used by other families are available here.
Who to invite:
One final note to consider when sending invitations is who to invite, and again, there is no right answer. Some aspects you may want to consider:
- Do you want a big or small event? Or would you want a larger ceremony followed by a smaller gathering or burial?
- Would you want friends or family to travel from other locations?
- Would you be comfortable with pregnant friends attending?
- Would you be comfortable with attendees bringing small children or babies?
If you would prefer that pregnancy friends and/or small children not attend, it is appropriate to communicate your wishes. You may tell attendees directly, or ask a third party to do so for you.
Visiting and Preparing Your Child’s Body before the Funeral
You may want to visit your child in the time before the funeral or before the burial or cremation. Many funeral homes allow for this. Some crematoria also allow for family members to be present for the cremation. If this is something you want to do, ensure your chosen funeral home or crematorium allows it.
When you visit, you may want to hold your child, or wash him or her. You may want to dress them in new or special clothing, or stroke their hair or hands or face. Some parents will talk, read, or sing. You may also want to just sit with them. Whatever you want to do is right.
One option many parents are unaware of is that in some jurisdictions you may take your child home with you for a while. This is generally accomplished with the aid of a cooling device called a cuddle cot, available to borrow from many hospitals. If this is something that feels right to you, ask your hospital if they have a cuddle cot available.
You should be aware that depending on the length of time between your child’s death and the funeral, their body will have likely started to decay. Embalming can delay this process, but will not halt it entirely. This blog post, while not infant-specific, discusses some things you may experience when visiting your child’s body. If you are wary, you can ask a friend or an employee at the funeral home to prepare you for what you may see.
Finally, the staff at the funeral home will prepare your child’s body for the ceremony. They will likely request that you bring in a new set of clothing*, including a diaper. You may also bring blankets, socks and shoes, and even toys. You can request the staff to arrange these items inside the casket with your child and/or in a display. The funeral home cosmetologist may use make up on your child’s face. You can discuss with them ahead of time what you would prefer.
Decorations for your Child’s Funeral
It is not uncommon to decorate the location of the funeral. Flowers are a traditional decoration, and your funeral home should be able to assist with ordering a spray for the casket. They will often offer to you or request from the florist a smaller size to ensure it fits the smaller casket.
When choosing flowers, you may think about flowers for the birth month of your child, or flowers that feel special to you and your family. Some families choose potted plants, artificial flowers or wildflowers. If there is a particular flower that is important to you, artificial flowers may also be a good way to include blooms that aren’t currently in season.
When the ceremony is over, you may take the floral arrangements home with you, have them placed on your child’s grave or in a meaningful place, or have them donated, often to nearby hospitals. If you would like to have them donated, the funeral home can often assist. If you used fresh flowers, Aidans Elephants suggests keeping a bloom or two pressed into a book as a keepsake.
Friends and family members will also often contribute floral arrangements to a funeral service. If you would prefer not to receive flowers, you may insert a statement in the obituary or invitation requesting donations to a charity, or that attendees bring donations for a food or toy drive to the funeral. If you do receive arrangements, you may want to keep the cards in your guestbook or another place as a keepsake.
In additional to or sometimes in place of flowers, families may display toys or balloons, or other items that remind them of their child. When I decorated for Adrian’s funeral, I included a display of some of the letters I wrote to him, as well as the first onesie I purchased and some of our ultrasound and maternity photos. You may also consider a photo slideshow or video.
On the Day of Your Child’s Funeral
If the funeral is in the morning, you will likely wake early to prepare. If the funeral is later in the day, you may wake early anyway. This is common in grief. Even if you aren’t hungry, try to eat something and drink water, then take time to check in with your feelings and mentally prepare for the day. If you have time, let your body rest.
If you are decorating the funeral location yourself, you will want to arrive early. Give yourself additional time because the decoration process may be more emotional than you expected. If there are things you want to handle yourself, do so, but remember that others can help with things you don’t want to do.
Prepare yourself mentally for visitation. You may want to have some canned phrases memorized to respond to those who pay their respects. But know you don’t need to say anything profound, and often “thank you” is enough.
You should also be prepared that some people will unfortunately say things that are unintentionally hurtful: things like, “at least she didn’t suffer;” “he’s in a better place;” or “it was part of God’s plan.” Decide ahead of time how you will respond to these sentiments.
Throughout the day, you may find yourself cycling through a wide range of emotions, some of them unexpected. One of the things I personally found surprising on the day of Adrian’s funeral was that as more people arrived, I had trouble connecting to my stronger feelings, and I fell into a kind of numbness. I have learned since then that this is also normal.
If you are leaving your child’s body at the funeral venue, you may feel especially strong feelings when they close the casket, and also when you have to leave. This is normal too. Let yourself feel however you need to in the moment, without burden of anyone else’s expectations.
After your Child’s Funeral
After the formal ceremony, you may want to hold an informal gathering at a restaurant or in your home. You may invite everyone, or just those closest to you. You may also find you prefer to be alone. All of these decisions are valid.
If you did much or all of the work of planning the funeral, you may be both physically and/or emotionally exhausted. You may even feel a bit of an emotional “hangover” or let-down, as if you just finished a festival or stressful holiday. You may also feel a resurgence of grief, as if your child is freshly gone all over again. This is all normal. Let yourself handle these emotions in a way that feels right for you.
I am so sorry for your loss.
Some information for this article was obtained via interview with Angie Cardoza, Pre-Planning Advisor, [email protected]
Blog Posts about a Baby’s Funeral:
Financial Assistance to Assist in Planning a Funeral for your Child:
Many life insurance policies provide funds when a child dies at or after 20 weeks gestation, or after birth.
There may be additional resources for financial assistance in your local area as well.
Additional resources to Assist in Planning a Funeral for your Child:
Aidan’s Elephants (UK):
“Planning Your Baby’s Funeral“
Sherokee Ilse and Susan Erling Martinez
“Planning a Precious Goodbye following miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, or other infant/child death” (e-book for purchase)
“How to Plan a Stillborn Baby Funeral“
Red Nose Grief and Loss (Australia):
“Arranging Your Child’s Funeral“
“Choices in Arranging a Child’s Funeral” downloadable booklet linked in article above
Sufficient Grace Ministries (US):
“Funeral Planning” (written for terminal pregnancies, but generally applicable information)
Tabitha’s Trust (UK):
“Saying Goodbye – The Funeral“
“Planning a Funeral for Your Baby“
Verywell Family (US):
“How to Plan a Funeral for an Infant“