Talking about death

Talking about death: helping your members make final decisions

Talking about death with your family members can ease their burdens later.

Drexel C. Rankin, D.Min., is a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, Louisville, Kentucky, United States.

In planning funerals, two problems often arise. First, the family of the deceased may know little or nothing about the desires of their loved one concerning the funeral. Second, the minister seldom has sufficient information about the deceased to properly offer a personal word at the funeral service.

Occasionally, an individual is given time to prepare. A diagnosis is presented. A physician predicts the amount of time a person will live. The patient is given time to ponder his mortality, to plan how he intends to use the remaining days, and to think about how he wishes to express his faith after he is gone.

Unfortunately, not every individual is granted such a boon. In those situations, decisions fall upon a grieving family. The emotional stress of the situation makes these judgments very difficult, and they are often made emotionally rather than rationally. By indicating wishes in advance, a person can help to ease the burden on loved ones.

How important, then, that you encourage church members to prepare in advance.


Over more than thirty years in ministry, I have watched families agonize over the “proper” way that a loved one’s funeral should take place. I have seen family members battle while trying to decide “just what Dad would want.” In the trauma of the moment, these decisions are seldom made with ease.

For that reason, I have encouraged parishioners to stay in charge of these troublesome, and sometimes complex, decisions by making arrangements long before they are necessary. Much as a living will gives certain directives to medical doctors and staff, the prearranged funeral or memorial service allows the wishes of an individual to be crystal clear.

When my mother passed away eight years ago, I was living several hundred miles away. She had the foresight to make most of her arrangements prior to the illness that took her life. An insurance policy that covered funeral expenses was in place with the funeral director. She had carefully drawn up a list of her wishes concerning her funeral service. The only decision or expense that I had to make was for transportation of family members from the funeral home to the cemetery. A difficult situation was made much easier thanks to her foresight.

For many years, I have encouraged members of my congregations to do the same. The process could be viewed as intrusive if conducted on a congregational scope. If conducted on a more personal level, however, congregational members will view it as a way in which their wishes are cherished and their family is spared making hasty decisions—especially if death occurs suddenly.

Recently, we incurred a family death in which a wife and her husband were away from home, visiting friends. With no previous medical ailment, the wife simply went to sleep one evening and did not wake up. Her death was unexpected, but she had previously made her wishes known: to be buried in a state other than where she and her husband lived; to be laid to rest in a particular cemetery; to have a bag of Cheetos placed in the casket with her at viewing and at burial. From the most serious of decisions to the humorous, her wishes were carried out because they were known by family members. The agony of losing a wife and a mother so suddenly was almost unbearable. Had her wishes not been known, the family would have encountered extreme difficulty in knowing how to arrange for her service and interment.

Shortly after I arrived at a new pastorate, two individuals gave me a folder with information regarding their wishes for funeral arrangements, place of the service, a personal history, and burial instructions. Within three months, one of those individuals died. Her presentation to me was most helpful because, in such a short time, I could not have known most of the data that she had given me. She had no close family in whom to confide.

Prearrangements by an individual are exceedingly helpful to family members and to ministers. They save precious time and energy, especially if there are several children who, otherwise, might be conflicted about decisions. Moving through this process helps to protect the individual and his or her loved ones from the conspiracy of silence that surrounds death and dying.

Gathering such information should provide for the wishes of the deceased; how much better that than forcing family or friends to make those difficult decisions.

How to

Encourage individuals to talk openly with family, to listen carefully to expressions of concern, and to give attention to those desires. The purpose of this exercise is to abide by the wishes of the deceased, and to make this death as easy on the family as possible.

Information can be gathered in at least two ways. After I have called on an individual, I carefully record matters of importance and significance that the individual has shared with me. I then log the date of my pastoral call in my personal copy of the church directory. I am able to look back in my calling log to retrieve a great deal of information that I may have forgotten over a period of several years.

I can also gather information directly from the individual in writing. I prefer to do this on a person-to-person basis so that it does not seem so intrusive.

Laying some groundwork, however, is necessary. Ministers have opportunities to talk about death during the worship service. Preaching from the Psalms, from Jesus’ promises of resurrection and a life more abundant, or from Paul’s words to the Romans or the Corinthians—all give the minister ample opportunity to broach this subject in an assuring manner.

When preaching on this subject of death, I have often alluded to the importance of individuals making prearrangements to ensure their wishes and to ease the family from the burden of making decisions hastily.

In a similar manner, an occasional note in the pastor’s column of the weekly newsletter opens the door to discussion.


Many people choose not to deal with their own death or make such prearrangements, either because of fear or denial of their finite nature. Many people simply don’t want to discuss these issues.

All that the minister can do is encourage individuals to have discussions about their lives, about who they are, about what they want at the end of life. It is essential for the minister to provide that opportunity. Certainly, it is best to begin these discussions sooner rather than later, for the individual may run out of time.

Procrastination in talking about the end of life is not in anyone’s best interest. It is fear that keeps us silent about difficult topics; it is courage and compassion that allow us to begin to speak. Only in confronting the inevitability of death does one truly embrace life.

Some have pondered my spoken or written words and have visited with me about their desires. Occasionally, an individual calls me to talk specifically about their wishes. At other times, the subject is raised during a pastoral call in the home or hospital.

However it comes, and whatever the context it’s given in, the more the survivors know of the deceased’s wishes, the better those wishes could be fulfilled at the time of death and for the funeral itself.

The funeral

At the funeral, and armed with the needed information, the minister can do four things: express thanksgiving for the life of the deceased, console the grieving family, personalize the service with anecdotes from the life of the deceased, and read appropriate Scripture with the individual and the family in mind.

The funeral represents a purposeful opportunity to establish meaning—to reflect on the meaning of a life that has been lived and to determine the impact of that meaning for those who continue. It is a time for human sharing in its deepest sense. The choices made regarding the funeral service will determine its significance for that person. Preplanning is simply a mechanism to ensure that a person will have choices. It enables the individual to arrive at choices with a clear mind reflective of the life lived rather than the grief at death.

Solomon was right. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:1–4, NIV).

I would like to add, “And a time to plan for death . . .”

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Drexel C. Rankin, D.Min., is a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, Louisville, Kentucky, United States.

May 2006

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