My first funeral was a fiasco. The funeral director took notice and offered to be my mentor. I was young and proud. Rather than accept his help, I pulled a book off my shelf, The Funeral by Andrew Watterson Blackwood. I read the book for the first time after my dismal failure. I was determined to avoid embarrassment at all costs. It helped to shape me for a lifetime of ministry to those who hurt. It is my hope that these insights will be of benefit to you.
Things to avoid
Do not pass the microphone. I have observed the impromptu “tributes,” namely, people in the congregation relating their experiences with the deceased. Many of these tributes were humorous, producing laughter in the audience. While this went on, I noticed the family seated near the casket—no laughter; only tears. Tributes should be scheduled.
Do not insist on calling a funeral a “celebration.” A single mother came to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) every day for a year. Despite all the professional care, her baby girl died. At the funeral, the pastor insisted, “This is not a time to weep, it is a time for celebration.” The mother choked back the tears. As soon as the funeral ended, she drove home alone. The NICU staff was furious. The next day they brought the mother to the hospital chapel. Each staff member placed a white rose on the altar. Some read a scripture. One nurse sang a song. They allowed the mother to weep. They took her to the fresh grave, where they placed the white roses, embraced her, and prayed. That day was a day of grieving; not a “celebration.”
Use the slide show with care. Sometimes 10 or 15 minutes of family pictures are shown. Some pictures may be better shown to family members privately. If used, it may be preferable to view slides while the congregation awaits the start of the service.
Moderate the life sketch. A lengthy life sketch in the bulletin is a wonderful keepsake, but difficult listening. The family may elect simply to read highlights aloud during the service.
Prioritize the ministry of comfort. The focus is on the family. A sermon on the state of the dead or the second coming of Jesus has a proper place, but that place is not the funeral. While some deliver an appeal at the close for people to accept Jesus as Savior, let us not lose sight of the ministry of comfort that desperately needs to be delivered.
Be sensitive to tone. Tone of voice and volume can be both arresting and soothing. Be aware of your speech and movement. Recognize the value of the pause. In some cultures, pacing back and forth on the platform is jarring to family members for whom life has come to a standstill.
Avoid the funeral file. Pulling out a past sermon from the file is an insult to the family. An uplifting and comforting funeral takes time and prayer. No two funerals are alike. The pastor must personalize, personalize, personalize. Pastors would profit from asking themselves, If I were seated with the family, would what I am planning to say be helpful and comforting to me?
A family meeting. Before the day of the funeral, a meeting with the family has great value. Family members can reminisce, weep, and occasionally laugh. Burl Ives said in one of his songs, laughing is a funny way of crying. In the family setting, laughter is very appropriate. As the pastor listens, the life sketch takes shape and the funeral sermon is informed. Prayer for the family is offered. Funeral participants, the order of service, and any other issues are addressed during this occasion.
Write it word for word. It is profitable for the sermon to be written word for word. A copy can be transcribed on attractive paper and given to the family after the funeral. The family gains a blessing by reading it after the numbing effect of the funeral.
A sacred time. The funeral is a sacred time. It begins and ends with the reading of Scripture and prayer. Selected scripture should be practiced in the pastor’s study. Read with expression. Read slowly. There is power in the reading of Scripture. Include an abundance of it. Prayer acknowledges the sovereignty and mercy of God. Both lamentation and praise are part of prayer. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden contained both. He is a worthy model.
Acknowledge and permit grief. The family is in deep grief during the funeral. The pastor must not minimize or ignore it. I like to tell family that tears are the jewels of remembrance, painful but glistening with the beauty of the past. Jesus mingled the tears of divinity with the tears of humanity. In a sense, our tears are prophetic of the tears of the Man of Sorrows and prophetic of the wiping away of tears in eternity.
Emphasize Jesus’ compassion. Using stories of Jesus raising the dead and healing the sick may not be appropriate. After all, the family may have been praying for healing for months, yet death came. Recall the compassion of Jesus. It is comforting to know that the Lord is close to us even in our loss. He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort us. The Holy Spirit is the agent of compassion.
Be brief. For years I have had funeral directors tell me that brevity is most effective. Some prefer under an hour. Aside from accommodating their schedule, family members have thanked me for being prepared, organized, and brief. It can be extremely stressful to endure long funeral services.
Use the best tool. Scripture is the treasure chest of comfort. I have sometimes read Scripture almost exclusively. A Church of God pastor was in the family. After the funeral he said, “I have read the passages you used, but I have never understood them as I did today. I am going to spend more time with them.”
Grieve with them. Jesus entered into the pain of others. People had a strong sense that He carried them on His heart. While working to pay my tuition, I met a pastor who did just that for my family before I was born.
My parents had lost two children to scarlet fever in the same week. The home was quarantined. It was the dead of winter. The funeral could not be held in the church. The young pastor held the funeral on the front porch. Decades later, the now elderly pastor told me, “It was a blustery day. I was chilled to the bone. Your parents opened a window a little bit so they could hear me. I read the scripture and prayed, and then the funeral director and I took the two little boxes to the cemetery. It was a very sad day for me. I was close to your parents. Losing those babies was hard for all of us.”
I watched his old face. I could tell the loss was not forgotten in over six decades. He had entered into the pain of my parents before I came into the world. When I told my parents about meeting the pastor, they knew his name and told me about his funeral on the front porch. His words, his compassion, and his presence were not forgotten.
Allow God to work through you during these times of sorrow.