Planning a funeral for your stillborn baby

If you lose your baby after 24 weeks, their body must be buried or cremated by law. Whether or not you hold a service before the burial or cremation is your decision.

Planning a funeral for your baby is one of the most traumatic things a parent will have to go through. We hope the practical information on this page will help you.

If you lose your baby after 24 weeks, their body must be buried or cremated by law. Whether or not you hold a service before the burial or cremation is your decision. 

These are the usual options for the funeral:

  • The hospital can arrange the funeral for you, usually free of charge or for a small fee. If you do choose a hospital funeral, much of the paperwork and decision-making will be done for you but you may find that your choices are limited. For example, some hospitals can only offer cremation, and some provide shared ceremonies or burial in a shared grave.
  • You can engage a funeral home to do it for you, in which case you will be supported by the funeral director. There may be a fee but it is likely to be a reduced rate. Many do it free of charge.
  • You can organise the funeral yourself, liaising directly with the crematorium or cemetery.

The arrangements that you choose to make to mark your baby’s death in the ceremony are very personal. You may have important religious wishes that you would like observed, or you may want a very different type of non-religious event with poetry and singing. What happens at the ceremony is your decision.

You can also choose not to be present at all and to allow the hospital and their undertaker to make all the arrangements. It might help to take some time before making this decision, and remember that you are allowed to change your mind.

‘My husband and I planned the funeral together and it was beautiful. We were able to do everything we wanted to and share it with our family and friends. It is not something you ever expect to be doing but it was so important to us to mark Arthur’s life and express some of our grief at losing him. Watching my husband carrying his coffin over to his burial spot was heartbreaking but also such a precious demonstration of love. Planning the funeral also gave us something to focus on during those first terrible empty days after coming home from hospital.’ Kathryn, who lost her son Arthur at 36 weeks (taken with permission from the book, ‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith)

When do I have the funeral?

There is no specified legal time limit for the funeral, most happen within two to three weeks. Take your time to consider what you would like to do and to talk to those close to you. Your baby will be kept safely in the hospital mortuary or the funeral home until the burial or cremation. Don't feel pressured to make decisions before you are ready. It may be hard to make the decision if your partner wants different things.

Be aware that the hospital will probably want to know if you’d like them to organise the funeral before you go home. However, the staff can let you know who to contact if you haven’t yet decided at this point.

You will need to obtain a certificate of registration of a stillbirth from your local registrar. At the same time as getting this you’ll also be given a form to permit burial or cremation, which you can then pass on the funeral director or hospital, depending on who is making arrangements for you.

The hospital or funeral director can help you with this and any other forms. If you are organising a separate funeral, the cemetery or crematorium staff will need the same form.

'You never think you will bury your own child especially one you haven’t got to know, one you barely got to hold. Walking through the cemetery holding my little boy’s hand and following my husband who was holding Heidi’s coffin will be a feeling that will never leave me.' Rachel, who lost her daughter Heidi at 29 weeks (Read Rachel’s story here)

Taking your baby home before the funeral

Some parents like to take their baby home before the funeral. Unless a post mortem has been ordered by a coroner or procurator fiscal, this is normal and legal. Some hospitals and mortuaries provide cold cots you can borrow to keep your baby cool at home.

'Our friend is an undertaker. He took Owen away to the morgue and then brought him home to us in a coffin. We didn’t look at Owen again but he stayed at home with us until the funeral. His nursery was all ready for him so it felt natural to keep him there, in a coffin in his cot, for the following three days.' Keith, who lost his son Owen at 38 weeks (Read Keith’s story here)

Burial or cremation

Hospital funeral - burial

You may not have the choice of burial if you choose the hospital funeral. Check with your hospital.

Shared grave

If there is a burial option available it may be in a shared grave with other babies. Some parents are comforted by the thought that their baby is not alone, others prefer not to take this option. If your baby is in a shared grave you will not have the option of a headstone, but you may be able to put a plaque in another part of the cemetery. Your baby will go in the shared grave in their own coffin.

Individual grave

If your baby is in an individual grave, it may be in a special area of the cemetery for babies’ graves. This means there might be restrictions on what you can put on the grave. You may want to find out what is allowed before committing to this.

Hospital funeral - cremation

Hospitals offer individual and shared cremation. In a shared cremation, several babies are cremated at the same time. Individual cremation, if it is available, is offered for babies who died after birth or were born dead at a later stage of pregnancy.

Ask about ashes beforehand. If your baby was stillborn there will be ashes (if the baby dies before 17 weeks there are unlikely to be enough ashes to collect). Ask the hospital staff when the ashes will be ready for collection and how you will be contacted.

Hospital funeral – ceremony

Hospital funeral ceremonies may be shared and are held by the hospital chaplains. Ask at the hospital to see if they will provide an individual one. The shared funeral ceremonies are non denominational, so they are for parents with no religion as well as those who are. You would be welcome to invite anyone you want to attend. The ceremony may be held in the hospital chapel, or in the crematorium or cemetery chapel. You may be able to ask to have some input into the ceremony but this will be restricted because it is a shared ceremony. Talk to the chaplain about your options.

Individual funeral 

If you organise the funeral yourself or use a funeral director, you will have the choice between burial and cremation. Your baby can be buried in a cemetery, a green woodland site, in consecrated grounds or on private land. If you do decide to bury your baby at home, think about the future. Might you more away from that home at some stage? it is worth considering how you might feel if that happens.

'Owen is buried with my Dad. It felt right because it means he’s not alone.'
Keith, who lost his son Owen at 38 weeks (Read Keith’s story here)

If it is an individual ceremony, you will be able to have much more input into the ceremony, similar to the flexibility you would have with a funeral director or doing it yourself. See below for more on planning the ceremony.

The funeral ceremony

If you are not having a hospital shared funeral, what happens at the ceremony is your decision. You may want a very small, private funeral and perhaps a memorial at a later date. Or you may wish to invite friends and family to attend. If you have other children, you will need to decide whether they come to the funeral and to make sure they are prepared for it if they do. It might be a good idea to ask someone they trust to look after them.

Some faiths have a set structure, which may allow you less opportunity to adapt the ceremony, but can provide religious or spiritual comfort. If you would like a less religious event, you could ask your funeral director, an independent celebrant or even a close family member or friend to lead the ceremony. This means you can make your baby’s ceremony as personal as you wish.

There are many things you can do to ensure the ceremony is right for you and your baby. These are some of the things that people have told us about:

  • Choosing special readings or poems
  • Playing special music
  • Releasing doves or butterflies
  • Siblings lighting candles as part of the ceremony.
  • Asking for donations in memory to a charity that funds research into prevention of stillbirth
  • Asking people to wear another colour instead of black, maybe white or any colour but black
  • Choosing a white coffin and asking siblings or others to write messages on it
  • Including letters in the coffin from siblings and other family members
  • Taking photos of the ceremony for a memory box later
  • Producing an order of service with a picture of your baby, name and birth date on the front. This can also be put in a memory box later.

You can also choose what your baby wears. If your baby was born very small or premature, the hospital may keep a stock of tiny clothes that they can give you. You may want to bring some special clothes from home. Some parents decide to keep an identical set of clothes as a memory. You might have a special baby blanket you would like to wrap your baby in.

Some families decide to include other memories and special things in the baby’s coffin. You might want to bury your baby with a special teddy or toy. You could write a letter to your baby. Siblings might want to write a poem, or story for their baby brother or sister. There are no right or wrong choices, just the choices that feel right for you and your baby.

You may also like to think about transport and who you would like to carry the coffin into the ceremony. This can be a very special moment, but also very emotional for parents.

'We waited to arrange the funeral for him and made it as much about Tristan as we could by carefully selecting music and poetry for him. We opted for cremation so we could take him home with us where he should be and decided that a wicker casket was the most suitable option for him as it looked so like the Moses basket he was in at the hospital.' Sarah, who lost her son Tristan at 38 weeks (Read Sarah's story here)

'Cradling Gabriella’s casket in the car on the way to the service was heart-wrenching. At the same time, I remember thinking it was one of the most special things I could do as it would be my last chance to hold her in my arms.' Hannah, who lost her daughter Gabriella at 24 weeks (Read Gabriella’s story here)

What to do with the ashes from a cremation

You can collect the ashes yourself or the crematorium can bury or scatter the ashes in a special place in the crematorium grounds. If you choose this option you may be able to have a plaque placed in the crematorium gardens.

If you take the ashes there are some options for what you might like to do with them.

  • You could scatter them yourself, perhaps in a place that is special to you or that feels right for your baby. If you are scattering ashes, these are the restrictions:
    • Not within one kilometre upstream of any drinking water supply
    • Not from a bridge over a river used by boaters or canoeists
    • Not close to a marina, anglers or a place where people swim.
  • You could have them buried in a cemetery or a memorial garden.
  • You could scatter or bury the ashes in your garden at home, but you may want to think about whether you are likely to move away at any point and how this would feel.
  • You could keep them in your house in a decorative urn or other special container.
  • There are photo frames available that can hold ashes in a container at the back.
  • You can have them in a piece of jewellery that you can wear. They can be put in several pieces of jewellery that you can share with family members.

Read more about creating memories here