Memorialization and Commemoration

Teachers, school counselors, or other school staff can help children plan an activity that makes sense for students. A good start is engaging them in a discussion that explores their feelings and gives direction to their plans. Teachers and school administrators often worry that such discussions, or the commemorative activities themselves, will upset students. Of course, it is the death of someone they know and care about that is the true source of distress, not these conversations about it. Having the conversation also allows teachers to observe what students are feeling and thinking. It is better for these things to be out in the open, where children can receive support, than for children to feel they need to keep their feelings hidden.

These conversations work best when staff facilitate open-ended discussions with students. Asking questions and listening to answers provide much useful information. It is important to avoid the temptation to tell students how they should be feeling about the death. Although adults can offer suggestions, especially to initiate the conversation for younger children, the children themselves should suggest their own ideas and choose the approach they believe will best express their feelings and facilitate remembrance. Some questions that teachers and staff can ask to start the conversation may include the following:

  • What do you remember about the person who died? This question provides a wide-open palette for children to remember and remind each other of the things that were important to them. In a fully open discussion, students might include both positive and negative qualities about the person, or some unpleasant memories about the person's illness or the way that he or she died.
  • What do you want to remember about the person? This allows children to filter through their memories and focus on those that are positive.
  • What are some ways we could take time to observe or mark these remembrances? Let students suggest a range of ideas. Some may be completely impractical, whereas others may be movingly poignant. Often, students come up with ideas that are both pragmatic and simple-a 10-minute remembrance in which students can say a few words if they wish or a picture that the group makes for the family of the person who died.
Once several ideas are on the table, students can work with their teacher or other staff to select those that seem best in their situation. This gives students the opportunity to share their ideas and feelings in the group, to come to a shared understanding about the commemorative activity, and to collectively identify a meaningful and helpful way to commemorate the person who died. When students can participate in planning and carrying out their own ideas, the results are likely to have greater relevance for them.


Some schools have established policies for recognizing and remembering students or staff who have died. Policies can help schools encourage planning appropriate commemorative activities-those that benefit students and staff and help them cope with their grief. When policies or guidelines are in place, they can also help schools avoid some of the common difficulties with memorialization.

Memorial and Funeral Services
Chapter 3 discusses some of the reasons it is helpful for children to attend the funerals of friends and family members. When a death touches an entire school, however, the question of how to plan for student and staff attendance becomes larger.

Schools should check with the family of the deceased to see if they have any wishes about students or staff attending the service. If many people in the school knew the deceased, students and staff may be able to participate in visitation outside of school hours. Ideally, the service itself would also be scheduled for a time when school is not in session. This helps minimize disruption of the school's schedule. It also makes it easier for students to attend with their families, which is generally the best choice for children and teens attending funerals or memorial services.

If the service is during school hours, schools may want to set a policy about student absences. For example, students who had a close relationship to the deceased and have permission from their parents may be excused to attend. Substitute teachers can be arranged for teachers and other school staff who wish to attend. It might also be helpful to have counseling staff present at a memorial or funeral service that is likely to be attended by many students. Counseling staff will also be helpful at the school after the service.

Attendance at services should be completely voluntary. Sometimes students feel pressured to attend services even if it is not what they want to do. If regular classes can go forward as scheduled, they should. Students who have missed class activities to attend a funeral may need some extra help catching up on assignments or going over the content of missed classwork.

Spontaneous Memorials

Informal memorials often "spring up" after the death of a student or teacher. People might place flowers, notes, photos, books, stuffed animals, and other sentimental items somewhere on the school grounds. The memorials might also involve graffiti on walls, walkways, or lockers.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with informal memorials, and students and staff may find them helpful. However, it is important for schools to place limits as appropriate and quickly determine how long such a memorial is left in place. Usually a few days to a week is appropriate.

The school should communicate the plan to students (e.g., "The memorial will be removed on Friday afternoon."). Let students know what will be done with nonperishable items (e.g., stuffed animals might be donated to the thrift shop of a local charity). They may also communicate what contributions are acceptable, such as letters, notes, and photos, but clarify that graffiti on school property is not allowed. Students should be invited to check with administrators or school counselors if they have any questions or concerns about the memorial.

Sometimes the management of informal memorials can be a problem. They should be monitored regularly in case something inappropriate is placed at the site (e.g., a bottle of beer, a suggestive photograph). They should also be checked
to ensure that students do not post harmful messages. For example, after a student has committed suicide, someone might write a message that says, "You made the right decision." If someone died in a gang-related incident, a message might
say, "I'll find the person who did this and make sure he joins you." In other cases, students may contribute messages that are negative or critical about the person who died. They might say, "You were a jerk," or "This couldn't have happened to a better person. I'm glad you're gone." These are obviously hurtful and inappropriate and need to be removed.

Providing alternative commemorative opportunities for students and engaging them early on in planning the response efforts may help minimize interest in informal memorials. Students may benefit from creative writing projects addressing their feelings about such things as the person who died, losses they have experienced, or how to remember people we care for who have died. Art projects or other creative endeavors may also help student express their thoughts and feelings.

One of the overarching goals of all of these commemorative efforts is to keep the school on track doing what schools do-caring for children's well-being and providing their education. Each situation is different, and the goal is not to establish hard-and-fast rules that are rigidly applied, but to come up with a process that involves the input of interested parties with appropriate expertise—administrators, school mental health staff, students, and teachers. A policy can be established that supports the process.

Ultimately, the way each person is remembered by friends, teachers, peers, or colleagues depends on the particular situation. This includes who the person was, what caused the death, and what people feel they want to do in response. It is important that memorialization in different situations is equitable and fair. This does not mean they must always be the same.

It is also helpful to remember that school communities that come together to support each other and commemorate one of their members who has died are often brought closer together by the experience. The death of a student or staff member can be transformative for students, their families, staff, and the school community as a whole. Teachers who understand the importance of giving children appropriate guidance and assistance at such times are in an ideal position to support such possibilities. The best outcome of the transformation is a return to a sense of normalcy, however. Studies move forward, information is learned, and students and staff alike know themselves a little more deeply than they did before.

Reprinted with permission from The Grieving Student: A Teacher's Guide, by David Schonfeld, M.D., & Marcia Quackenbush, M.S., M.F.T., C.H.E.S. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. 2010.

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