The funeral-obligation or opportunity?
When your phone rings at 2:00 a.m., you know the news will not be good. And sometimes when a call comes at 4:00 on Friday afternoon, the news isn't good either. That's when I got the dreaded summons to con duct my first funeral. The infant son of a church member had died unexpectedly. Little Ned's funeral would be a large one, since the family was prominent in the church and popular in the community.1
Just as I was contemplating Ned's memorial service, my phone rang again. Another funeral for me to conduct! The circumstances surrounding the death of 87-year-old Gladys were less traumatic, but the grief of her family was no less severe.
So there I was with both funerals looming before me, and I knew of nothing to say. Out of that desperation the Lord led me to develop a type of funeral sermon that has transformed my view of ministering to the bereaved. I now see funerals as unique opportunities for spiritual service.
The personal approach
I learned my new approach after visiting with the bereaved families. For more than an hour I listened as Gladys's children and grandchildren reminisced about her life. Although I had never met Gladys, I came to know her through the eyes of her loved ones. I shared some thoughts on the love of God and the hope of the resurrection, then left to visit the family of baby Ned.
The previous Thursday night Ned had gone to bed a little fussy. Maybe cutting a tooth, his mother thought. The next morning he had a high fever and was breathing with difficulty. His body was covered with red and purple splotches. Doctors diagnosed spinal meningitis. Despite their valiant efforts, Ned died Friday after noon.
The parents, Frank and Dorothy, were suffering shock when I came to visit. Even so, they wanted to talk about their good times with Ned. During the next couple hours, tears mingled with smiles as they told me his nicknames and described his cute antics. For example, Ned still hadn't learned to leave the dog's food for the dog. All of what they shared helped me understand what their child meant to them.
Now it was Monday evening, and both funerals were on Tuesday. Late that night I was still trying to prepare my two sermons. I was thinking about one family having a lifetime of memories behind them, while the other had a lifetime of memories ahead. Suddenly the inspiration came to me (I mean that seriously). I should combine what I learned about the person and family with what I know about the Bible.
The sermon for Gladys came together easily. From what her family told me she seemed to be the personification of Proverbs 31, so it was logical to use that passage. The story of Dorcas in Acts 9:36-41 also represented her devotion to both family and community. I drew a parallel between God's eager willingness to grant Dorcas life and His willingness to exercise His resurrection power for Gladys some day. I followed that with various texts referring to the resurrection and eternal life.
In addition to those Bible passages, I ministered to the family by sharing events and insights from the life of Gladys. Friends and distant relatives saw her as the children had portrayed her to me. Along with her good qualities, I mentioned a few of her struggles. This brought smiles to the family and made her seem real. I wasn't describing an angel but a real person. The reaction of the family to this type of sermon was overwhelmingly positive.
At Ned's funeral I followed the same pattern. Obviously, I didn't have a life time of events to talk about, but I did share with the audience of more than 500 friends and relatives what the little boy meant to his parents. I mentioned his nicknames and the continuing struggle over the dog dish. Again, this personal information brought smiles to the faces of family members.
Throughout the sermon I spoke to Ned's parents by name. I shared the story in Luke 8 of the parents whose daughter died after a delay in healing—before Christ resurrected her. I drew the parallel: "You also, Frank and Dorothy, sought for Jesus last Friday to save your child. As with the parents in the biblical story, healing was delayed. Imagine the anxiety of those parents as they waited and waited and waited. Finally, suddenly, Jesus appeared. Life was restored. Hope found fulfillment.
"Frank and Dorothy, like those parents long ago, you are waiting today. You called upon Jesus, but it was not time for Him to grant your request. So you are waiting—waiting for the day when Jesus will suddenly appear. When He comes He will resurrect little Ned and give him back to you. He invites you to make an appointment today to be ready when He comes in clouds of glory."
Grieving people are hungry for the love of a pastor and the God we represent. The families of both Ned and Gladys told me they found meaning, comfort, and hope in my personal biblical messages. What a unique opportunity for ministry that we have at funerals!
Sometimes fellow pastors question the wisdom of my referring so frequently to the name and life experiences of the deceased. I can only report that the reaction of grieving families to this personal approach—connected with a parallel Bible story—has been overwhelming in every instance. Months, even years, later, family and church members express appreciation for what they heard in my sermon.
One day while riding the "coach" to the cemetery, the funeral director mentioned that he had listened to three of my sermons and in his opinion they were among the best he had ever heard. He explained that many pastors seldom mention the deceased after the obituary portion of the service is finished. Often they conduct the service without even speaking directly to the family about their grief. He observed that I do not use a separate obituary. Instead, I weave significant events of the person's life into the sermon itself. Each event falls naturally into place, mentioned along with personality traits that the family spoke of in my visits with them.
I share the above compliment only because it has made me bold to offer the following recommendations to fellow pastors:
1. See the funeral service as an opportunity to serve, not as an unpleasant obligation.
2. In visiting with the family be forehand, take note of what they say about their loved one's character and personality. An hour or two of careful listening can reap rich dividends for the funeral service. Let the family know you may include in the sermon some of what they tell you, if it is appropriate.
3. The person who died has a name— use it frequently, along with any suitable nicknames. Don't be afraid to mention character shortcomings, if the family is willing and you can do so with sensitivity.
It's a real person you are talking about, not an angel. Just keep in mind that "he who handles souls must have sensitive fingers." 2
4. Talk to the family during the sermon. If you are careful, you need not hurt feelings. Acknowledging the loss, the pain, and the confusion helps the family know that at least somebody understands what they are suffering. Your first obligation is to help the family cope with the reality of their loss and, where appropriate, to sense the equally strong reality of God's saving and resurrecting power. They need to know that you are talking to them, not to your notes or to some vast assembly in which they don't count.
5. Talk to the general audience as well. Drawing the friends of the bereaved into the service helps them cope with their own loss. It also opens opportunities for personal ministry.
6. If you knew the one that died, draw from your own relationship with that person—but keep the family' s recollections and feelings paramount.
7. Give a "talk," not a discourse. People will not be impressed with flowery words nearly as much as with your compassion and realism.
8. Try to understand and reflect the mood of the mourners. The type of grief is different following a lingering and painful illness than when a baby's life is snatched away between daylight and darkness. Both families have grief, but the first family' s grief is tempered by expectation and relief.
9. Place the person's life into some type of perspective. Someone who grew up during the Depression may?have a philosophy of life that their baby-boom children don't understand. The funeral sermon is an opportunity to bring into focus the various influences that made the life what it was. If the final years were clouded by disease or deterioration of the mind, help the family focus on the hap pier times in the past. Acknowledge the changes of recent years, but focus on more pleasant areas of character and personality.
10. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you insight into the person's life that you can share to help the family in their grief. Remember that the Spirit is the "Comforter," and He wants to use you in accomplishing His work.
Arthur was the father of one of my members who had an untreated infection in his leg. Rather than face an amputation, he shot himself. I wondered what I could say at his funeral. Arthur had shown no interest in Christianity. Family and friends couldn't remember any time in the previous 40 years when he wasn't, to some degree, under the influence of alcohol.
After I talked with the family, a couple factors emerged. Arthur was reclusive—except when he bundled a gang of grand kids into the back of his pickup to head for some fun. He drank heaviest when other people demanded Ms energies.
Suddenly a door opened in my mind. I remembered hearing or reading that alcoholism is sometimes a mask for an abnormal condition called agoraphobia (the fear of crowds). I discussed the idea with the family during my pre-funeral visits. Instantly they were filled with in sight and understanding. One daughter confided that she had been treated for both agoraphobia and alcoholism. She also told me that Arthur's mother had the same combination of illnesses for many years.
During the funeral service, when I shared the possibility that Arthur had suffered from these problems, heads nodded in agreement. At dinner afterward, many friends and relatives came over to thank me for my insight into Arthur's life. As I was leaving, Arthur's son-in-law (husband of my member) approached me for prayer on behalf of his son, also an alcoholic. This man had never before been willing to discuss religion with me. And we've talked several times since. Certainly the funeral was a moment of opportunity for reaching him.
Charles died while engaged in his favorite activity, training horses. In talking with the family the evening before the funeral, I felt the love and loyalty they all had for him—except the oldest son. He couldn't bring himself to express affection for his father. What bothered him was that his father never seemed content to settle down in one place. He had many talents and managed to make a living everywhere he went. But just when prosperity appeared imminent, Charles would quit his job and move on with his family. When they related this to me, the oldest son would protest, "This won't help the pastor; let's not get into it." I assured them that I wanted to hear whatever they wished to tell me.
Later that night I began to pull into perspective what the family had told me. One extremely positive quality stood out. Charles may have moved around frequently, but he remained consistent in his relationship with God and the church. Even the oldest son acknowledged, "Dad was as straight as an arrow in his love and service to God." I searched for a Bible story that might parallel Charles's life.
During the funeral I told the story of Abraham. Always on the move that man was often called by God, sometimes perhaps for no apparent reason. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham was always searching for something better, a city whose builder and maker is God. I pointed out the parallel between the experiences of Abraham and Charles and encouraged the family and friends to likewise persist in their own quest for God's perfect city. They could find its fulfillment together with Charles when Jesus comes.
When the service was over and we were getting into cars to head for the cemetery, the oldest son walked over and hugged me. "Thank you for that sermon," he said. "I now understand my dad better than I ever have before."
That type of response happens frequently when I follow the steps recommended above, investing time and energy in personalizing the funeral sermon.
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1 Names have been changed.
2 Roland Hegstad, editor of Liberty magazine,
at a ministers' meeting in January 1991.