What to say/not to say when someone dies

Nathan’s father passed away a couple of months ago, after battling an awful disease for three or four years.  They had the blessing of knowing in advance what was coming; they had the awful burden of knowing in advance what was coming.  Recently, he and I were talking about what people say when your loved one dies. I asked for his experience on the subject. This is what he wrote….

Someone just this morning expressed her sympathy for the loss of my dad. It reminded me that I still had this partial thought process typed out.  If it turns out that any of this is useful fodder for one of your articles that would be great to read.  I always appreciate your point of view. (and I even agree with it occasionally) Actually I mostly agree.  (Joe: Buttering up the web-host is always a good idea, Nathan.)

My first thoughts on this topic were based on the biblical accuracy of things that are said after someone dies.  Do people really believe what they say?  If they do, where did they get those philosophies?  I’m not suggesting there is a list of approved biblical phrases to use in this situation, only asking that we consider why folks craft and continue to
perpetuate these flawed notions.  I believe there is a danger turning faith into fairy tale for our own comfort.  At the same time it may help us to approach someone with biblical truths after we understand their line of thinking.

I added some of my thoughts along with the things people say.

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So, how would you write your obituary?

My son Neil and I had a few days to work on Margaret’s obituary.  Understandably, he could not bring himself to think about it while she lingered in the hospital on life support.  It was hard, but I worked on the essentials.

Margaret and I used to talk about these things. But not seriously. Somehow, you think this could never happen to you.

Margaret’s sister, widowed perhaps four years ago, told how someone praised her husband Jim with a good line which she later used as an opener in his memorial.  So, we began thinking about that.

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On the shore, waiting to cross over to the other side.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6).

Suppose you are 95 years old, as my friend Bill is. You buried your wife of over 50 years some six or seven years ago, and you have serious health issues now.  So, you begin to think of transitioning from this earthly dwelling to your heavenly existence.

The minister–that would be me–comes to see you in the rehab hospital.  And he asks some probing questions.

Can we talk about this?

This morning’s paper contained a tiny article about the Fort Morgan ferry that runs across Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island.  The cost for one car and two passengers, this fellow said, is $20.50.  That’s up considerably since the last time my wife and I rode it with our grandson.  Grant was about six, as I recall.

We had arrived at the ferry landing and took our place in line with other cars. I bought the ticket and we were milling around waiting for the ferry to arrive from the other shore.  Grant was apprehensive.

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You’re doing a funeral, pastor. Offer comfort.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

First, let’s make the point that nowhere does Scripture say preachers have to preach funerals.  In fact, there’s not a word in the Bible about the necessity to even have funerals.

But there is a great deal about comforting the grieving and hurting.

We who are called into the ministry must not claim this funeral prerogative as our divine right.  If we are invited to “preach a funeral,” someone wants the comfort we are able to give because of Jesus Christ.

Don’t miss that.

And try not to abuse the privilege.

Most preachers get this right. They know a funeral is the saddest time for a family and that they are there to do one thing: to bring the comfort of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Again, most pastors seem to get this right.


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