Lawrence G. Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor and professor residing in San Luis Obispo, California, United States.

The purpose of this article is to challenge pastors to create funeral and memorial services that affirm our Christian faith, provide comfort and assurance to the family and friends of the deceased, and are creative while presenting an accurate account of the person’s life. Therefore, it is important for the pastor to spend time with family members to ask questions that invite them to share memories that guide the preacher in preparing a message that incorporates significant details of the individual’s life. How do I know?

A catalyst story

A pastoral colleague of mine had lost his father. Several weeks after the memorial service, I asked my friend whether he had found the funeral service meaningful to him. After a moment of reflection, he replied, “No.”

I probed further. “Did what the pastor said give you comfort or help you process your loss?” Again, his answer was no.

“What do you think the pastor might have said or done that would have been helpful?” My friend responded that he was not sure. He told me that he was not sure whether anyone could have said or done anything in a public venue, like the funeral, that would have been either helpful or meaningful. The funeral, he observed, took place so soon after his father died that there was little time to process much of anything. More time, he said, is needed before one can begin to put things together and respond to the traumatic loss associated with the death of a family member.

This conversation, and my friend’s evaluation of the funeral homily, set the wheels of my mind turning. How might a pastor transform the funeral homily from redundant to relevant? I began to reflect on funeral services I had attended as an observer and recalled the conversations among the family and friends after the service. There were occasions when the pastor recounted specific details and experiences of the person’s life. After the service, I listened as people told one another how what the pastor said revived memories of the person who had died. People opined that the pastor was right on in his depiction of the person’s life.

I reflected on other funeral homilies where the officiant provided no evidence of ever having known the person. The generic homily could have applied to anyone. Conversations after the service either did not reference what the pastor said or expressed disappointment that specific details of the person’s life were omitted. What can be done to change that? Here are some helpful points.

Talking to the family

The initial family visit gives the pastor an opportunity to listen as family and others express feelings and concerns related to the loss of their loved one. Family members usually like to talk about their recent loss and reflect on the deceased’s life, significant events, and accomplishments.

When a parishioner dies, it is reasonable for the pastor to assume that he or she will be officiating at the funeral or memorial, but it is best to confirm this with the family. Whether the family may desire someone other than the pastor is a delicate matter. Such situations provide an opportunity for the pastor to exhibit grace and understanding. I know from experience the feelings that arise when the family selects another person to fill the slot. It is not a failure or sign of weakness if internal disquiet arises when another person is asked to fill the role we believe is ours.

Some congregations have a policy that when a wedding or funeral takes place in the church, the pastor is to officiate. Accept that people have a right to ask anyone they wish to officiate at the service of their loved one. There are other opportunities to minister to the deceased family. When a pastor occupies an observer position, it is an opportunity to think again about what it means to be a servant pastor to our people.

Guidance in decisions

At some point in the conversation, it is appropriate to ask family members if they have had the opportunity to think about funeral or memorial services. It may be helpful for someone outside the immediate family, such as the pastor, to assist the family in considering what lies ahead. This is an opportunity to explain that one has the option to select ground burial or cremation. Family members may ask if the church objects to cremation—it does not.

We have the hope of a soon-coming Savior. However, I believe it is also important to create a homily that identifies the individual’s unique characteristics that people have come together to remember and honor.

It may also be helpful to review the process of selecting a casket. If cremation is selected, the mortuary may have a cremation casket. It is appropriate for the pastor to explain that the mortuary is a business, and there will be a wide range of price options available. The mortuary sells a product like any other company. There are expensive caskets, and there are less expensive caskets. When the salesperson has shown the available caskets, one can ask whether there are other options. Often the mortuary keeps the less expensive products in another location away from the more expensive items.

A few questions

In the course of the conversation, it was my practice to explain to the family that when I officiated at the service, I saw myself as a spokesperson for the family. I explained that it would help me prepare my remarks if the family answered a few questions. Take careful notes as the family provides information to include in the homily. Sample questions: What did the person count most important in his or her life? What were some significant life influences? What career did their loved one pursue? Were there any unusual events that impacted his or her life? What causes did he or she support? What made him or her angry or distressed? If failing to mention one thing would fail to identify this person, what might that one thing be? Are there other people outside of the family that meant a lot to him or her?

Questions such as these enable the pastor to discover the family’s perceptions of the one they have lost and incorporate into the homily what the family considered unique about their loved one. The answers provide a platform upon which to develop the homily.

Including family statements in the funeral homily, without identifying how the information was obtained, grabs people’s attention. The family members hear their statements in a new way. They identify with what is said, for the pastor is restating what they expressed. When preparing the homily, it is essential that we enfold whatever we say within the context of our Christian hope and that we assure the family and friends that our faith enables us to face death with confidence. We have the hope of a soon-coming Savior. However, I believe it is also important to create a homily that identifies the individual’s unique characteristics that people have come together to remember and honor. The pastor who is successful in catching the essence of that person’s life can expect to see an immediate response from those who hear, as evidenced by smiles of agreement, nods of approval, and other overt mannerisms.

A hopeful homily

Unfortunately, I found out from personal experience what a family needs from the pastor. Early one morning, a phone call from a pastoral colleague informed me that my father, Ed Downing, had died. I decided to officiate at my father’s memorial service. In consultation with the pastor, we scheduled the service in my parents’ home church.

My sister, other family members, and I designed a service that would fit within a forty-five- to fifty-minute time frame. We agreed that we wanted the service to reflect my father’s values and present a brief and accurate statement of what set Ed apart from others. We recalled his personal likes and dislikes, career choice, recreational activities, the significance his Adventist faith played in his life, and his commitment to family and friends. We identified what distressed him. I searched his Bible to find texts he had underlined, and I attempted to remember the subjects of sermons he, as a local church elder, preached at his home church. With these assembled pieces of information before me, I began to write.

As I spoke, I noticed people nod agreement when I recounted incidents in my dad’s life, smile or laugh at appropriate places, and appear somber when a serious statement was made. The service was kept within the target time limit.

A sacred opportunity

A memorial service is a sacred opportunity. People who experience loss are vulnerable; distressed; often confused; and, on occasion, angry. Questions are asked that have no answer.

A funeral or memorial service is an occasion that calls for a pastor to apply skills and creative thought that transform a boilerplate cliché into a creative homily—one that honors the deceased, speaks to the listeners, uplifts the Lord Jesus, and affirms the blessed hope.

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Lawrence G. Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor and professor residing in San Luis Obispo, California, United States.

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