That first funeral

The beginning preacher probably faces no other task in his ministry with more trepidation and less preparation. Here's how novice and veteran alike can avoid some of the more mortifying pitfalls.

A. D. Inglish is pastor of the Anderson and Alexandria, Indiana, Seventh-day Adventist churches.

A beginning pastor's first funeral can be almost as traumatic an event for him as it is for the family of the deceased. This is understandable. In any religious service, order, dignity, and a smoothly functioning program are desirable; in the funeral service they are essential. Small imperfections that might go unnoticed at the morning worship service can be embarrassingly evident during a funeral. Trepidation is increased, as well, by the natural hesitancy we all seem to feel in the face of death and our uncertainty in dealing with those who are bereaved.

Of course, minor errors will not likely arouse the anger of the grieving family. Family and friends are usually quite understanding and realize that the pastor is doing his best. As long as they know that any awkward spots are not the result of gross carelessness, they will rarely blame him.

This article is designed to help pastors who are inexperienced in conducting funerals to avoid mortifying pitfalls and to direct untroubled services that will be of genuine support to those who mourn. Even if you don't fit into the "inexperienced" category, you may pick up a beneficial point or two.

Planning ahead

The foundation of a suitable funeral service begins before the need arises. Upon arriving in a new parish, visit the ill and aged members as soon as conveniently possible, especially those in hospitals and nursing homes. Such counsel may seem unfeelingly pragmatic; however, a funeral is not pleasant to conduct under the best of circumstances, and it is more difficult if you have never met the deceased. If an aged or seriously ill member dies several weeks (or even months) after your arrival and you still haven't.found time to become even slightly acquainted, the situation can become strained indeed. During such visits, make a conscious effort to remember any incident or re mark that may be used in a funeral sermon. To do so is not being coldblooded. A favorite passage of Scripture, a comment regarding his or her Christian experience, when woven into the funeral sermon, may provide solid and long-lasting comfort for the family. An alter native is to obtain the deceased person's Bible and use underlined texts in your remarks.

Visit the funeral homes in your town before you are called upon to conduct a funeral in them, if at all possible. If you are located in a large city, you may wish to consult one or two longtime members to determine which funeral homes are most often used by your congregation, and visit only those. Funeral directors will be very happy to receive a visit from you, show you their establishment, and answer questions you may have. Even a slight acquaintance with the funeral director and his facilities will help to make your service go more smoothly.

As soon as you learn that a member has died, go to the family and place yourself at their disposal. In most cases they will ask you to conduct the service, but occasionally they may wish to have another pastor do so. The other pastor may be a close family friend, a relative, or a former minister in the parish. In any case, if the family even hints that they would prefer another pastor to conduct the service, agree immediately and make it clear to them that you are not offended in the least. Offer to assist at the funeral in any way, or to allow the other pastor to handle the entire service himself, as the family may choose.

Rarely, you may have reason to believe that the family would prefer that a former pastor conduct the service but that they are hesitant to mention it for fear of giving offense. If so, ask plainly and tactfully whether this is the case. Explain that you are quite willing to conduct the service yourself, but that you know of the family's close friend ship with the other pastor, and are equally willing to have him officiate. Thus, you may offer the family a way out of an embarrassing dilemma at a time when they are under considerable stress. Your courteous and tactful handling of a potentially embarrassing situation will not soon be forgotten.

Order of service

In most cases, the order of service for the funeral is left to the pastor to decide. (It is well, however, to ask the family for any special instructions or requests, and to honor these if at all possible.) The following order of service is a simple one that works well. During the organ prelude, the minister enters the chapel a moment or two before the service is to begin, and sits in the chair provided for him near the speaker's stand. When the organ stops playing, the minister stands, reads an appropriate Scripture selection and the obituary, and is seated. An organ hymn or vocal selection follows. The minister then gives a ten- or fifteen-minute sermon, closes with prayer and sits down. An organ postlude completes the service.

Mimeograph a supply of your order of service (or simply type a copy and re produce a supply on a photocopier). Then give one to the funeral director and one to the organist when you conduct a service. The organist in particular will find this very helpful. He can place it on the music rack and tell at a glance where you are in the service at any moment, and what is to come next. Remember, the funeral director and the organist are just as concerned as you are that the service be flawless.

Plan to arrive at the funeral home at least half an hour before the service is to begin so that a flat tire or a fifteen-minute detour will not cause you to be late. When the flat tire or the detour fails to materialize, you will have some time to relax in the funeral director's office or the minister's waiting room and review your notes one last time. This is much better than rushing into the funeral home thirty seconds before the service is scheduled to start.

If for any reason you discover that you will not be able to get to the funeral home in time, don't panic. Go to the nearest telephone and call the funeral home. Explain the situation and tell them where you are. They will send a car for you and will take you back to your own car, or to your home, after the service. Funeral-home personnel are trained and experienced in handling the unexpected. There are few emergencies they have not met and dealt with before.

The sermon

The sermon, and indeed, the entire service, should be short. People neither need nor want a long, drawn-out funeral service. Twenty to twenty-five minutes for the service, with the sermon itself lasting between ten and fifteen minutes, is adequate. Rarely should the service last more than half an hour.

The funeral sermon should be sober but not unduly sad. The Christian pas tor's message, even at a time of grief and mourning, is not a sad message, but one of hope. It should point its hearers for ward to that great day when God's children will meet in His kingdom, never to part again. Paul admonishes Christians that their sorrow is not to be like that of "others which have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). The Christian does have hope, and the funeral sermon should reflect—indeed, emphasize—that hope.

A word of caution: In your effort to keep the funeral sermon from being sad, don't put into it anything that might be construed as humor. In fact, it is a good idea to go over the sermon carefully before you preach it, to be sure that you have not inadvertently included some expression or phrase that might convey a humorous twist that you did not intend. If you can cause the mourners to smile through their tears by your expression of their loved one's joyous hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ, then you have succeeded gloriously in your sermon. But never try to bring a smile through unfortunate attempts at humor.

The sermon should be personal, while at the same time not concentrating on the person. This apparent contradiction simply means that the sermon should contain references to the deceased, his life, his faith in Christ, his relationship with his church, and the pastor's friend ship with him, but that these references should not dominate the sermon. The dominant theme should be the Christian's hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Above all, do not extol the virtues of the deceased in a flowery eulogy. This was never appropriate, and has long since gone out of style.

Difficult situations

Remember also this cardinal rule—never say anything in your funeral sermon that violates your own doctrines or beliefs. Occasionally a pastor will be asked to conduct a funeral for a person whose beliefs differed, in some respects, from his own. It may be that the survivors share those beliefs. This is not an insurmountable problem. Most Christians share a body of common beliefs that is large enough to allow a pastor to conduct the service without offending either his own beliefs or those of the deceased and his family. Rarely, how ever, some member of the family may feel that it is important that some particular belief of his own or of the deceased, which the pastor does not share, be mentioned in the sermon. He may even ask the pastor to make this belief the basis of the sermon.

If you should find yourself in such a situation, deal with it kindly but firmly. Explain that you respect the right of the deceased and his family to hold these beliefs, but that it would be ethically and morally wrong for you to include them in your sermon, since you yourself do not hold them. Assure them that you can conduct the service without saying any thing that would offend either their con science or yours. If this does not resolve the problem, you may be forced to with draw and ask the family to find another pastor to conduct the service. You are within your rights to do this, if it be comes necessary.

A far more common variation of this problem is the situation in which the pastor is asked to conduct a funeral for a person who showed no interest in salvation and who, so far as is known, never made any profession of faith in Jesus Christ. These are among the most difficult funerals to conduct. It often hap pens that the families of such persons are staunch, loyal Christians. Some times, in their love for the deceased, they want desperately to believe that he is saved. They may even hint, with varying degrees of firmness, that they would appreciate it if the pastor, in his sermon, would speak of the deceased as being saved.

In this awkward situation, the pastor sympathizes with the family and longs to comfort them in any way possible. Nevertheless he cannot, in good conscience, speak of salvation with the same assurance with which he can speak of it in the case of a Christian. This does not mean, however, that he should speak of the deceased as being lost. He should not do any such thing. Only God can say who is saved and who is lost. In such a case, the pastor should speak of the infinite love of God, who judges both in righteousness and in mercy.

One final word about the funeral sermon: Under no circumstances take ad vantage of the opportunity that the funeral offers to preach your own beliefs to those who do not share them. This does not mean that you are to conceal your beliefs for fear of offending someone who does not agree with them; on the contrary, your beliefs must be the very foundation of your sermon. Your purpose is to comfort those who have lost a friend and loved one. Whenever it is necessary, in pursuit of that aim, to mention your beliefs in your sermon, do so plainly and without hesitation. If there are those present who are offended because you do this, so be it. But do not make the funeral an occasion to dwell on beliefs that some present may not share, in the hope of persuading them that they are mistaken. In other words, remember that you are conducting a funeral, not an evangelistic service.

After the funeral

After the sermon, it is my practice to sit down and remain seated while the audience files past the casket. When they have gone, and the members of the immediate family go forward, I step to the casket and stand with them while they say their last goodbye. Other pastors prefer to stand at the head of the casket as the mourners pass by until the family has left.

When the chapel has been cleared and the flowers have been taken to the flower car, the funeral director will call the pallbearers back into the chapel and instruct them how to carry the casket to the funeral car. You should walk slowly a few steps ahead of the casket. When you reach the funeral car, step aside and stand facing the casket until it is inside and the door is closed. You may then either go to your own car, if you plan to drive to the cemetery, or take your seat in the funeral car beside the driver. Unless you have a special reason for driving your own car to the cemetery, you will find it more practical to ride in the funeral car. This will allow you to relax for a few minutes between the funeral service and the graveside service. It will also rule out the possibility of your getting lost on the way to the cemetery! (Believe it or not, this has happened.)

When you arrive at the cemetery, go to the rear of the funeral car and wait for the pallbearers. As they remove the casket from the car, take a position a few paces ahead of the casket and lead the way to the grave. Take care that you do not walk too fast. The pallbearers are carrying a heavy and awkward burden. A glance over your shoulder will enable you to match your pace to theirs.

When the casket has been placed on the grave and the pallbearers have moved aside, take your place at the head of the casket and wait until the mourners have assembled around the gravesite. As soon as they have gathered, you may begin.

The graveside service

The graveside service should be even shorter than the funeral service; much shorter, in fact. A few verses of Scripture, a few brief remarks, and a committal prayer are all that is necessary. The whole service should take no more than five minutes.

After the committal prayer, step for ward to the row of chairs in which the relatives are seated. A handclasp and a few words of comfort to each of them concludes the service. You may then return to your own car or to the funeral car, or mingle for a few minutes with those who have come to the cemetery.

The honorarium that is given to the pastor for conducting the funeral service is handled in various ways. In some cases, the funeral director will give it to the pastor at some time before or after the service, or mail it to him later. In other cases, the family will prefer to give or send it to the pastor directly.

Pastors who receive the honorarium also handle it in various ways. Some pastors feel that it is improper to accept an honorarium for the funeral service, since it is a part of their ministerial duties. If this is your feeling, you may either donate the money to your church or to some other charitable organization, or return it to the family with a brief note explaining your feelings.

Other pastors see nothing improper in accepting an honorarium for conducting the funeral service. Your own feelings must guide you in this matter.

It is, of course, the epitome of bad taste for the pastor himself to request, or even to mention, the honorarium. This is a matter that is to be left entirely to the family. If you are asked about the charge for your services, the only proper reply is, "There is no charge."

You will probably never reach the point where you can be perfectly calm as you approach a funeral service. This is not a weak point in your pastoral expertise; it is simply a recognition of the fact that you are human. Most of those for whom you will conduct the funeral service will be members of your own congregation, whom you have come to know and love. The sorrow of the family and friends will be your sorrow. Jesus wept at the grave of His friend Lazarus, and He understands when you share in the sorrow of the mourners. Indeed, He expects you to share it. You cannot relieve their sorrow if you do not in some measure feel it.

Funerals will always, therefore, be traumatic to some degree both for the seasoned pastor as well as the beginner. Experience can, and should, make you more proficient; it should never make you perfunctory.


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A. D. Inglish is pastor of the Anderson and Alexandria, Indiana, Seventh-day Adventist churches.

June 1980

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