Baby funerals: how to mourn your child and remember them with beauty and love

Baby funeral by London based funeral celebrant Rosalie Kuyvenhoven, Rituals Today
Ceremony for Evan’s life in the woods
(c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

In this article I share examples of baby funerals I have led. I am grateful to the parents who have invited me into their lives and who have allowed me to share examples of how they said farewell to their babies and embraced their lives. I hope these examples help realise that a baby funeral can be an event filled with beauty, giving a spark of light in the darkest and most traumatic of times. It can be a gift to your baby and to yourself. 

In addition to stories and examples based on my professional experience I posted a question on Twitter asking bereaved parents the one thing they wanted to share with others. This resulted in a thread of moving and very valuable comments of which I’ll share a selection in this article. In particular I would like to mention Margaret Pritchard Houston who generously shared the scripts of Isaac and Ezra’s funeral services with me as well as an article she wrote on baby loss and funerals for Church Times.

This may be a difficult article to read, especially if you are here because you are in the unimaginable situation that you will have to think about a funeral for your baby. If this what brought you here I would like to share my heartfelt condolences with you. I hope the below, especially other parents’ stories, is helpful for you.  

Baby funerals in times of COVID-19

I wrote the first draft of this article before the pandemic. Many things have changed since then. If you wish to care for your baby after they’ve died, your hospital or midwife will be able to advice what is possible. Arrangements and (bereavement) support will happen via the phone or virtual meetings. At funerals, people need to respect social distancing and only a limited amount of people are allowed to attend. You may not be able to touch the coffin.

However, it is still possible to have a personalised, meaningful funeral for your baby and, although funeral preparations now happen online, I still use the same approach in helping parents honour their baby’s life with love and beauty. You may also consider holding a memorial service for your baby at a later date.

For more information about babyloss during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found on the SANDS website.

Planning a baby funeral: a video

In this gentle video, created by Tommy’s for Baby Loss Awareness Week, two parents share their story.

When your baby dies

No one is prepared for a baby funeral. When you get pregnant, your life is filled with hope and dreams. For many parents, their child is part of their lives as soon as they find out about the pregnancy. They start organising their lives around the little human that is on their way.  

When the baby dies, all these dreams are scattered. The world that looked so much lighter and colourful turns into a black, dark, surreal reality. Arranging a funeral in this emotional horror scenario and, for the mother, whilst physically recovering from a delivery, seems an impossible thing to do. Organising a funeral for your baby is one of the most traumatic things a parent will have to go through.

It is important to realise that there is no rush and that you can take the time you need to create memories with your baby and to think about options. It’s also ok to change your mind about decisions. A good hospital will help you spend time with your baby. They will provide bereavement support during your stay and connect you to charities who can support you (a selection of charities can be found at the bottom of this article).

When a baby dies after 24 weeks of pregnancy, their body must be cremated or buried by law. It is your own choice if you’d like to have a funeral ceremony. Before 24 weeks this it not required by law but you can still organise a funeral for your baby. The hospital can arrange this for you, you can ask a funeral director or a celebrant for advice, or you can liaise directly with the crematorium or burial ground to organise the funeral yourself. 

A funeral provides a space to call out a baby’s name, to share hopes, dreams and stories about the precious time spent with this new life, to chose words, music and symbolic rituals that may help give expression to that what cannot be expressed and to create a community of support around the loss.

Organising a baby funeral: how does it work?

When parents approach me with their story I arrange a meeting with them. Ideally, this happens in person but during COVID-19 we do this virtually. During this meeting we take the time that is needed to talk about their story and we gather first ideas for the ceremony. Sometimes, the first meeting is just to get to know each other. Parents may feel too overwhelmed by emotions to start talking about the funeral service. Other prefer to write their thoughts down at a time that suits them. Together we find an approach that works.  

If the parents think this is helpful I suggest readings and music and share scripts of other baby funerals with them. 

Quite often though, by talking about their story and memories, parents come up with own ideas for music and words, for example:

  • A song they played during pregnancy or after birth
  • A story or a book they read to their baby
  • Music or words related to the name of their child
  • Music or words related to memories during pregnancy or after birth
  • A song or poem that has given comfort in their grief

By carefully listening to their story, the words they use and the feelings and ideas the parents express I design a ceremony and write a draft script. I share this with the parents and fine tune this with them in the lead-up to the ceremony. This helps them prepare for the difficult day of the funeral and it gives them some sense of oversight and control in a situation that feels uncontrollable.

Baby naming ritual

For the parents I have met, it was important that their baby was acknowledged as their child, with a unique name by which they would be known for always. The funeral was not only a ritual to express grief and say their farewells but also a moment to welcome the baby into their circle of family and friends and introduce their child to them. 

A naming ritual as part of the funeral ceremony helps welcoming the baby into the world and mark  their continuous presence in the parents’ life for ever. Examples:

  • Toby’s parents called out their son’s name and explained why they had chosen this name
  • Molly’s parents lit a candle for her life
  • At Lucia’s funeral I laid a rose with her name on top of her coffin, followed by a blessing
Baby funeral candle
A candle for Molly’s life. (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

What to say at a baby funeral?

One mother said to me: “We only have scattered dreams, no memories. What can we possibly say during the service?” Other parents share this concern. How can you possible bring together a ceremony of substance for a life that has stopped before it has begun? 

There may not be many stories to tell about the baby’s life, but there’s a lifetime of stories to share about the hopes and dreams parents have had since this life came into existence. The story may even begin before the pregnancy. Many parents build a relationship with their child before they are born. I’ve listened for hours to parents telling me about what it was like to be pregnant, when and where they first felt the baby move, the special things they did during the pregnancy, the songs they sang, the stories they told to that special life that grew with every week of the pregnancy and, if the baby was born alive, the precious moments they spent with them and what they looked like. 

These stories can be told during the ceremony. By one or both of the parents, or my someone else, such as the celebrant, on their behalf. Toby and Eliza’s fathers wrote a beautiful letter to his son which he read out during the ceremony. Vito’s mother spoke to him in her mother tongue. 

Words don’t always work. Sometimes silence, a piece of music, a ritual or a physical movement helps connect to that what cannot be put into words. At Maya’s funeral we were standing in a circle around her little coffin, holding hands in silence. 

“I find that people have simply been waiting for me to “recover”, and put pressure on me to “move on” and “put it behind me” as if Lucia wasn’t even a real person. Sadly, most people have never even said her name out loud. It’s so important to me that she continues to be acknowledged in any way possible.” (Heidi, Lucia’s mum)

Baby funeral
Bunny and flowers on Lucia’s grave (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

Letting go of the baby’s body 

For many parents the most emotional part of the ceremony is the letting go of their baby’s body. At a burial, the coffin is lowered into the earth. At a crematorium, the coffin may be moved out of sight by curtains or moved away through small doors. 

For some parents, this ritual is too upsetting and, if the funeral happens at a crematorium, they choose for the coffin to remain until they have left.

Maya’s parents wanted to leave the coffin in place but as a moment of closure they covered it with a blanket, hand knitted by one of the grandmothers.

Please note that during COVID-19 some crematoria don’t allow for coffins to remain in place and that touching the coffin may not be possible. Your funeral director or celebrant will be able to advise.  

Other examples of letting-go rituals:

  • Toby’s parents asked people to lay a snowdrop flower on his little coffin after we had read the poem ‘Little Snowdrop’ (see below)
  • At Freddie’s funeral we scattered white feathers over the coffin, inspired by the song his parents had chosen for that moment: ‘Angel’
  • When we laid Eliza into the earth we threw flowers, leafs and messages on the coffin

Ceremony space for baby funerals

You can have a baby funeral at a crematorium or burial site, but you can also choose an alternative location that is meaningful to you, or do the ceremony at home.

Please note that during the pandemic, alternative locations or a ceremony may not be possible – you could consider this when having a memorial service later. 

Some examples:

Olive was buried at a woodland burial ground. After the ceremony the family had a picnic on the grounds.

Baby funeral woodland burial
Olive’s funeral at woodland burial ground (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

The ceremony for Evan’s life took place in a local wood. His parents, family members and friends decorated the place with photos, flowers and a candle. 

Flowers for Evan (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

Readings for baby funerals

When it’s difficult to find words yourself a poem can give comfort. You can choose a poem or reading about the loss of a baby, or read something else that is meaningful for you. Maybe there’s a book you used to read to your little one. Rory’s parents chose to read from his favourite book about zebras.

A poem that resonates with many parents is ‘Little Snowdrop’ (author unknown):

The world may never notice
If a Snowdrop doesn’t bloom,
Or even pause to wonder
If the petals fall too soon.

But every life that ever forms,
Or ever comes to be,
Touches the world in some small way
For all eternity.

The little one we longed for
Was swiftly here and gone.
But the love that was then planted
Is a light that still shines on.

And though our arms are empty,
Our hearts know what to do.
For every beating of our hearts
Says that we love you.

The poem ‘The Noble Nature’ by Ben Jonson was read at Isaac’s funeral (shared with me by his mother Margaret Pitchard Houston)

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make Man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night-
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.

For more poems and readings for baby funerals, please refer to my blogpost: Readings and poems for baby and child funerals (to be published soon). 

Music for baby funerals

Most parents choose gentle music for the funeral. You may choose a song because it’s meaningful to you, because its words feel fitting for the moment, or because the atmosphere feels right.

Evan’s parents chose ‘Love’ from the film ‘Robin Hood’:

At Lucia’s funeral we played a lullaby by Brahms:

At outdoor funerals you may have natural sounds as your music: rustling leaves, singing birds. When we played a recorded song at Eliza’s graveside, the birds in the nearby tree wholeheartedly joined in.

An act of love

Organising a funeral for your baby is an act of love. Some parents may feel a pressure to do it ‘right’ as this may feels as the only thing they will ever do for their child. Some may feel regrets as they feel they haven’t done enough. 

Be kind to yourself. You may not be able to think straight as your heart-wrenching grief makes look everything as a blur. That is normal. Trust that whatever you do, you will do it out of love. The bond with your baby will continue and you will have other opportunities to remember them, pay tribute to their life and think of hem during milestone events. You will always be their parent and they will forever be your child.  

The one thing other parents want you to know

On Twitter I asked people who had lost a baby to share the one thing they wanted other parents to know. Here’s a selection of the replies:

“Never say “she’s in a better place” to a grieving parent.” – Ben and Gaynor, Stillbirth Awareness And Fundraising, @kmfoundation26

“What helped me was acknowledging the pain and saying my son’s name. Things like “I love you and am furious Logan is not here when he should be here.” – Logan’s mum, @LogansMum6

“We did not use the word funeral for our daughter Kallipateira but the word celebration. The one thing is the service is an opportunity for your love to shine and show that even after death our babies still exist & that we are still proud parents.” – Ben and Gaynor, Stillbirth Awareness And Fundraising, @kmfoundation26

“The funeral was only attended by my husband and I. A few months later, I was able to plan the ashes interment with a few close loved-ones who came. If it’s all too much at first, you can always do more at a later date.” – Rachel Bass, @CelebrantRach

“There are no rules for what is acceptable, appropriate. This is about your family, your child. You should do whatever you want that makes things right for you. We did not include our living children, nor any other family, at the funeral itself. We did something separate for them.” -@slummyUSmummy

“Whatever you need to do that feels right for you and your baby, do that.” – @DivineCeremony

You’ll survive it.” – Jess, @LegacyOfLeo

“I felt tremendous liberation after Alfie’s funeral – that he had been released, and we had too, and that he was now everywhere and untouchable.” – Corrina Gordon-Barnes, @CorrinaGB

“You might not cry, due to the surrealness of the situation. And that is ok. You may even feel happy on the day, the relief of seeing your baby again and knowing they are finally laid to rest.” – Natasha Jago, @natashajago90

“Yes yes yes, I didn’t cry. I have been to so many funerals where I was a blubbering mess, but then at my son’s I just didn’t, it was just so surreal like I was watching it from a far.” – Catherine McCarthy, @cesbamac

“The only thing I remember from the funeral  is the shock of seeing the tiny coffin.” – Anne Hawkesworth, @HawkesworthAnne

“That you will somehow make the right choices. The build up to the day is almost always worse then the day and you will get through it. You will surprise yourself with strength you didn’t know possible.” – @LBLea2

“That as painful as it is going through it, how hopeless and wretched it feels, it helps. It really helps as part of grieving.” – Rachel Duggan, @mrspossum79

“It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Keep it as simple as you like. You will get through it.” – Alex Dixon, @OhMyItIsAlex

“I worried that that there wouldn’t be anything to say as he hadn’t had a chance to live. However, there are many beautiful poems and touching words that echo what you want to say and can take the place of a eulogy.” – Arlene, @paleNfreckled

“My advice would be to do what you feel you are up to and don’t let anyone pressure you about anything. And it’s ok if you feel like maybe you didn’t quite get it right. Especially in the event of an unexpected death, there is no time to think in advance what to do.” – Huge Manatee, @Twotofourmum

“Siblings should always be included in a baby funeral. If you’re old enough to love then you are old enough to grieve. Also, allow as many friends and family members to attend. You need all the support you can get.” Denise M/ Paul, @DeniseMPaul1

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, just the best you can do at the time. And astonishingly and unfortunately, not all funeral directors are professional and sympathetic – you don’t have to go with the first (or second) you meet.” – Katy, @katy_h_h

“Don’t worry about pleasing anyone else with what you choose to do to honour your baby. Make it as big or small as you are comfortable with.” – Project BEAR, @Project_Bear

“Make it as simple as possible, let the parents decorate the coffin as they wish. We had our sons favourite cartoon songs played.” – Jen Wakefield, @jlwakefield2009

“Do what is best for you and your family. Best advice I had was that it is ok to take photos. The photos I have of Amie’s casket and flowers are so treasured.” – Kate, @iamkater21

“Your baby’s funeral is not indicative of your love for them. It does not have to be perfect, it just had to be what feels right for you. Invite as many or as few as you like. Accept help in the organisation.” – Olivia Tremlett, @OliviaT2

“I remember that after the funeral was the first time I had slept in 5 weeks. I have regrets. I wish I had got her more flowers. In the moment I also wished I could run away with her. I do wish I had given her more on that day.” – Emma, @kittys_mummy

Script for Jonah’s funeral service
(c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

Paying for a baby funeral: the Children’s Funeral Fund

July 2019, the Government launched the Children’s Funeral Fund. This fund covers the costs for certain elements of the funeral such as burial or cremation fees and a coffin, shroud or casket for babies who die after 24 weeks of pregnancy. 

Costs that are currently not covered by the Fund are, for example, funeral director’s costs, celebrant fees, flowers, order of service and headstones. Funerals for babies who die before 24th weeks of pregnancy are currently not being covered. Let’s hope this changes in the nearby future. Charities such as the Child Funeral Charity are able to advise and support.

Support and further reading

Grieving the loss of your baby can be a lonely process and it can be especially hard to find the support you need during the current crisis. Do reach out. There are many organisations out there who can help you with practical information, or emotional support, including Sands, Tommy’s and Miscarriage Association. I am also here to help and advise. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.

If you are interested in reading more about miscarriage, pregnancy and baby loss, the following resources may help:

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