I have the honor of serving with and leading numerous young pastors and church planters. These men have a passion for God and a heart for the gospel. Yet, there are those moments when pastoral expectations and responsibilities are thrust upon them that are far from what they were thinking when they first surrendered to God's pastoral call.
One such responsibility is preaching funerals.
We are only four days into 2018 and so far we have hosted one funeral, have two more Friday, one next week and another pending.
Since 1994, when I first began serving on pastoral staff at our church, I have attended and preached at well over 100 funerals. I have most of my messages saved. I have learned some things through the years and while this is not an exhaustive list, perhaps it may be helpful for young pastors and those who find themselves having to speak at a church member's or loved one's funeral service.
Everyone has their own expectations of what a funeral service should be. In fact, each region of our country expects different things. In our area, the visitation held the day before the funeral service is mostly gone. Yet, in some small towns in the South, I know that this continues. For example, in the small Tennessee town where my parents live, a dear friend of our family died on January 1 of this year. I received word of the service with the announcement that visitation would be held at the funeral home on the day prior to the service for three hours with an additional two hour visitation at the church where the funeral would be held.
There's nothing wrong with that tradition, it's just an example of something that is rare elsewhere.
Therefore, if you as a pastor are new to the community and have not attended a funeral in the area prior, ask some questions. Find out what is the norm for the region. There's no reason to push against what has been done prior, especially if it is simply traditional preference and not biblically wrong (I'll address biblical issues later in this post.)
Family members of the deceased often have expectations as well. This can range from having things they want done at the funeral to trusting you to plan and do everything at the funeral. Again, not an issue, just be aware.
Here are some bullet points on dos and don'ts for funerals (in no particular order):
- Pray before you meet with family that God will comfort them in their grief and provide you with wise words of counsel in preparation.
- If you sense division among the family, take control of the planning of the service in a loving way, offering to ensure that God is honored.
- Ensure you know how to pronounce the name of the deceased.
- Ensure you don't use a given name that was not preferred by the decedent or family members when referencing the individual.
- Meet with the family members, or a family member, prior to the service when planning what to say.
- Share stories of the decedent that bring smiles to loved ones and remind them of the life of their loved one.
- Realize that a lifetime cannot be encapsulated in 30 minutes.
- Have appropriate songs played, sung.
- Ensure doctrinal teaching is biblically founded and correct.
- When allowing family members or friends to speak, ask them to write down what they will be saying. Be firm in this. There's always that person who says "I don't need to write anything down. I'll just share from the heart." That's a mistake. You may find yourself correcting bad theology that is espoused, or sitting behind them as they speak, not hearing what they are saying. This may lead to you repeating what has already been shared. And, if they have it written down, you can provide them comfort in case they cannot finish when they began to speak by just reading their notes aloud on their behalf.
- Remind family members that no one other than you is expected to speak, but if you would like to offer them the opportunity, do so (see above point.)
- Pray during the service.
- Pray for God to comfort those who grieve.
- Create an order of service that flows naturally. (Example: Obituary Reading, Prayer, Family Message, Song, Pastoral Message, Prayer, Closing Song.)
- Communicate with the funeral home representative regarding the order of the service so you know and they know what is coming next.
- Ensure the casket is closed when the service begins. It's hard on the family and challenging for the pastor to speak behind an open casket.
- Offer hope - real hope founded in the gospel. You know this. Just make sure it's in your notes so you don't minimize it.
- Ensure the message focused on Christ and that he is presented as the only one worthy of worship and that God alone can bring the peace, hope, and life celebrated on this day.
- Make each funeral unique and special. The biblical message is unchanging, but the family stories and memories are unique.
- Offer a call to salvation. This does not have to be a "come down the aisle invitation" but should at a minimum be an invitation to come to Christ and speak to you or another Christian following the funeral.
- If military honors are going to be provided, clarify when (likely at the graveside) and work with the honor guard to ensure a smooth transition. In most cases, at graveside service following the funeral, I will simply read a passage of Scripture and pray and then step back, turning over the remaining graveside service to the honor guard. If the folding and presentation of the flag is to take place during the funeral service, I finish my sermon, pray, then step back turning over the closing of the service to the honor guard. Communication and coordination is key to allow for proper service and protocol.
- If the deceased was a believer, ask if he/she had a Bible they used and perhaps highlighted verses or took notes within. You may find some treasured memories or insights into what to share.
- Pray and prepare and trust God.
- Use Scripture (Some passages I've used in the past - Ecclesiastes 7:2, John 5:24, John 13:7, John 14:1-6, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Philippians 1:20-24, 1 John 5:13.)
- Forget that this is a time of worship, where the Bible is preached, God is worshipped, and hope in Christ is made clear.
- If at all possible, do not have an open microphone where people are invited to come forward and share about the decedent. It can be an wonderful moment, but it can also be stressful. If no one stands up to speak, people will be hurt. In most cases, it's because people are not comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. If people do begin sharing, the time could go on and on and be stressful for family and friends as well. However, if this becomes something the family really, really wants, ask if they have a few people who would agree to speak and then share with the congregation that you'll open up the floor to two or three more just to share a brief, two or three sentence testimony about the deceased. It may sound uncaring, but actually provides for an orderly service where God is honored and the loved one is remembered well. Also, be prepared if you have to do the open mic to have some things shared that probably should not be.
- Allow music that is dishonoring to Christ. That does not mean every song must be a hymn, but some songs are inappropriate. Had one request for the decedent's favorite song to be played during the pre-service slide show. I had never heard of it and didn't know it was a request, but received a call from the funeral home asking "Is this song okay?" I guess the part about smoking pot and getting drunk on Courvoisier raised the question. We opted to not use that song.
- Forget who your audience is. You're speaking primarily to the family members and close friends who are sitting up front. Focus on them. Don't worry about the others who came to the service.
- Forget to offer hope in Christ.
- Give false hope. If the deceased was not a believer, don't say "He/she's in a better place." You don't have to be rude. You don't need to be mean. Just don't give the family and others in the room the false hope that everyone gets to heaven.
- Share or affirm unbiblical ideas. No, dead people do not become angels. No, your loved one is not your guardian angel. No, your loved one is not watching over you. No, your loved one is not in your heart. No, your loved one is not in heaven just doing bigger versions of earthly hobbies (i.e. golfing in heaven, fishing in heaven, watching football in heaven regardless what Audio Adrenaline said, eating ... well, okay, there's eating.)
- Talk forever.
- Let the video slideshow run during the service. It's great for pre-service, but distracting during the service.
- Invite everyone to the meal following the service unless you've been instructed that everyone is invited and there is enough food available (if the post-service lunch is a custom in your area.)
- Allow an open casket during the funeral. During the visitation prior that is fine (if the family chooses) but preaching behind an open casket is difficult, not just for the pastor, but for the family sitting before it.
- Presume the family wants you to preach at the funeral. Clarify the ask.
There are many more things to do and not do, but as you serve God's church and the community during times of grief, these are some guidelines I believe may help. What are some other suggestions you have? Leave them in the comments.