During seminary, my pastorate of 30 months experienced one death in the congregation. The husband of the deceased lady said, “Pastor, do you know where there is a cemetery around here?” (We were in the bayou country southwest of New Orleans.) I told him, “I’ll find out.”
I called the pastor of the larger First Baptist Church of Luling, a few miles away. Don Grafton said, “Joe, I’ve been here 11 years and haven’t had the first funeral.”
He had no idea how to find the nearest cemetery.
That is the exception, believe me. Six years later, when I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, if I remember correctly, we had seven funerals the first week or two. It was like people had “saved up” their dying until the new pastor was on the field.
I’ve buried them of all ages and situations. Once I did a double funeral for a 34-year-old man and his 64-year-old grandfather. Do the math real quick. How is this possible?
The grandfather had died ten years earlier and no funeral had ever been held. They interred his ashes inside the grandson’s casket. (The 34-year-old had been killed with an axe and stored in the family’s freezer. Police arrested his wife’s lesbian lover. Both women are serving life terms in our state penitentiary.)
The hardest funerals are for precious little children. Second most heart-breaking are for mothers who died giving birth. Next are the young fathers who leave behind a stunned and grieving family.
Nothing about this is fun. It all tears your heart out and shakes you to your core.
The minister decides real quick what he believes about the gospel of Jesus.
All right. Here are some lessons hard-learned and long-remembered about funerals from my fifty-plus years in the ministry. I am well aware that every region and each denomination will have their own practices and traditions. That said, here goes….
1) A funeral is a worship service.
Call it anything you please–a memorial service, a time of remembrance, a service of tribute, whatever. As a God-called minister of the Gospel, you are there to lead the mourners to direct their attention to the living God who through Jesus Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
2) It is not necessary for me to decide whether the individual was saved.
In my early years I labored to learn if the individual was a professing and active Christian so I could preach the victory message as opposed to the other kind. Eventually, I figured out what should have been obvious from the beginning: Only the Lord knows. My job is to preach the Word.
3) If possible, family members should speak and give their own tributes to the deceased. This frees me up to preach the gospel.
Particularly in situations where the minister did not know the deceased, if one or two family members will speak, it makes the service personal. (If no one will be able to do this, I suggest they write out a tribute to the deceased and I will read it in the service.)
4) Aim for the right length.
Once, at the family’s request, my entire funeral lasted all of 6 minutes. An irate man stormed into the funeral home office to complain he had flown all the way from California for a 6-minute service! (He did not voice his frustration to me, but I wondered if he would have felt a 30 minute service would justify the trip. Surely he came for something other than just the funeral service.)
Our family’s problem is fitting all the preachers into the service. My brother Ron is a pastor, and Mickey Crane has been our family’s pastor for over 35 years and then, if possible. I’d like to say a few words.
As a rule, something between 30 minutes and an hour is ideal.
5) The pastor should have some say about the choice of special music.
I admit we’ve had some unusual selections over these years. One time it was “The Red River Valley” and another time “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” I vetoed the theme from the movie “Titanic.” I told the family, “Think about the symbolism–the Titanic!”
Mostly, whatever the family wants–whatever brings them comfort–is fine with me. But only up to a point.
6) A pastor should not reinvent the wheel for every funeral service.
One pastor said he takes two hours to prepare each funeral service. I find this unusually burdensome and completely unnecessary. Ninety percent of the time, what changes from funeral to funeral is only the eulogy. The message may be adapted to each situation, but for a pastor to craft an entirely new sermon for each service is asking too much of himself.
I suggest pastors memorize the most important dozen scriptures which they will be using in these services–a list that includes Psalms 1 and 23, John 14:1-6, and John 11:25-26–and be ready on a moment’s notice to talk about each passage.
7) The opening of every funeral service should be high and serious.
I’ve known ministers who opened the service with a conversational “Well, we didn’t want to be here today” or something like “So many times as we go through life….”
Let the minister walk to the podium (or pulpit or microphone) and say loudly and clearly, “I am the resurrection and the life; He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die!” Or, perhaps, “Let not your heart be troubled! You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you!”
Then, after a pause, let him declare in a few well-chosen sentences why we are here today and lead us in a prayer. Afterwards, a hymn or solo or quiet music is in order.
8) The prayers should be thought out, even if not scripted.
I’m not one for writing out a prayer, but some ministers do. Mostly, I suggest the minister should give prayerful thought (in his study earlier today, perhaps) on the direction of each prayer. Among other things, it protects the prayer from banality.
9) Remember, pastor: You will be speaking to some who have not been in church in years.
This is a great opportunity to do what you do best–tell of the victory that was won through Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Pray for yourself that you will do this right, and that some will come to Christ.
10) This is no time to share my own doubts.
If you question the basics of the gospel of Jesus Christ or doubt the testimony of Scripture concerning the afterlife, keep it to yourself. Better yet, find another line of work. Keep reminding yourself of the words of the Apostle Peter who found some things Jesus said difficult. “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We do not preach the gospel or turn to Jesus because this way is easy or His requirements simple; we’re here because He alone is the way, the truth, the life.
11) Keep telling yourself, “This is not about me.”
That’s always the case when you stand to preach, pastor, but never more true than at a funeral service. No one cares that you’re wearing a sport coat today instead of a suit, or that your tie is not the best match for that outfit, or that you had to rush here from a meeting. Preach the Word. If you have found comfort in the Word of God and the promises of Jesus Christ, share it! (If your throat is sore, your wife is in the hospital, or you had radiation for cancer just this morning, do not mention it. Do your job!)
12) Should the pastor extend a public invitation?
Answer: only in the most unusual of circumstances. In the message, always share the gospel and call on everyone to turn to Christ. During the prayer which follows, you can encourage each one to put their faith in Him. But this is no time for a public altar call.
13) What about humor?
The pastor will take his cue from the life of the deceased and the conversation of the family. If during the visitation, people were sharing funny things the deceased said or if you know of something humorous–especially if it happens to be profound–you may feel a freedom to share it. At Emmalee Holland’s funeral, I commented on her “divine irreverence,” and drew a smile from all who knew her. I told how she remarked to me in the hospital, “Preacher, I must be in worse shape than I thought I was. Everyone who comes in here tells me they love me.”
This however is no place for a joke or something funny that happened to you. If in doubt, do not use it.
14) Do not stand around with the people from the funeral home (before or after the service) joking.
It looks disrespectful and is out of place. Do not do it.
15) When in doubt about using a scripture or a point you wish to make, ask a mentor.
That’s why the Lord gave us friends who are older ministers with a wealth of experience. Find one or two and take advantage of their presence in your life. Most of their best advice comes from mistakes they made, not the wisdom they possess.
16) Should the pastor allow a former pastor to hold a funeral in the sanctuary?
Of course. This is not your church, but Jesus’. (See Matthew 16:18) Honor the former pastor and welcome him back, regardless of the circumstances for his leaving. Christ will be honored and you will grow in the estimation of your people.
17) What about the honorarium?
When asked, “What do you charge?” tell them, “Not a thing. I’m here to serve.” Ideally, the funeral director will advise the family to give you an honorarium and suggest an amount. Always remember that the Lord is your Source, not the people. Look to Him and He will supply your needs.
On the other hand, never turn down a gift when someone hands you a check or envelope. Take it and say, “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
18) Should the minister read the obituary in the service?
In most of our services, we do this. However, have someone look it over to make sure every family member is included and advise you on how to pronounce certain names. Many a pastor has gotten in trouble because he left out a sister or an estranged child or mispronounced a name. (Whatever you do, pastor, read the information well in advance and fix it all firmly in mind.)
19) Should you open the service for tributes from the congregation?
If the family requests this, we usually do it. An exception would be where several family members are already scheduled to speak and the service appears to be overly long. However, the minister should remain at the podium and in charge. If someone goes too long or strays into forbidden territory, he may cut in and thank them and say, “Is there anyone else?”
20) What about ministers from other denominations with whom you have doctrinal differences, if the family wants them to speak?
As a rule, you will want to be flexible here and easy to work with. You may discover the other minister to be a friend you’re just now meeting for the first time. If however, the service is in your sanctuary (i.e., on your home turf) and you have reason to believe the other speaker to be dangerous, inform the family that “church policy will not allow that.” (“Blame it on policy” is always a good rule. Smiley-face goes here.) Try to do this as early as possible and not the morning of the funeral.
You’re human. You will make mistakes. So, ease up on your perfectionism. After all, our trust is in the Absolute Sufficiency of the Lord, not ourselves.
Thank you, pastor, for the comfort and blessing you offer to the hurting. May He use your witness to fill Heaven with the faithful.
Remember when you stand at the graveside of a saint of God to shout the glorious message of Jesus Christ: There is a Savior, His name is Jesus, and there is no one else like Him. Because of Him, we live forever in the Father’s House.
It doesn’t get any better than this.