Pastor, at the funeral of a believer…

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on, that they may rest from their labors.  And their works do follow them”  (Revelation 14:13).

“I tell my students, when you’re standing at the graveside of a saint, make the message clear and plain. Because you’ve got the only message in town!” –Ken Chafin, longtime seminary professor, teacher of evangelism, pastor 

I’ve been going to funerals a lot lately.

Not conducting them, but going as a mourner.

I’ve reached the point in life where almost weekly I learn of the deaths of longtime friends and former parishioners.  This week, it was an 86-year-old member of a church I served in the 70s and 80s.  The week before, the deceased was the widow of a colleague I’d served on a church staff with in the early 1970s; she was 92.

I always pay attention to how the ministers do their funerals.  Always want to learn to do this better.

And that brings me to this.

I want to make a few observations to pastors (and ministers of all types and varieties) regarding the funerals of God’s faithful children…

OneDo it well. 

Everyone in the church (or funeral home chapel) is counting on you to lift our spirits by reminding us of the great truths of the Christian faith, the promises of God, the assurances of the Holy Spirit.  This is a great opportunity you’ve been handed.

If you are unwilling to do this, or if you simply see this funeral service as an easy way to make a hundred bucks, please decline when asked to officiate.

Two.  Know the Word. 

We are counting on you to have an intimate acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures.  Few things grieve me more than hearing a preacher stumble over the reading of God’s Word, as though this is the first time he’s seen it.

Pastor, never read a text in public you have not read at least a dozen times in private. Get your tongue used to saying those words, then give thought to how to read them most effectively.

ThreeKnow these scriptures intimately.

In fact, the scriptures which you will be using again and again at funeral services should be memorized.  You should learn them and love them. Go over them from time to time in order to keep them in mind and fresh on your heart.

Every preacher on the planet should have memorized Psalms 1 and 23, as well as John 11:25-26 and 14:1-6. I love Psalm 17:15 and 27:13-14.  In addition, we have unforgettable texts like Job 14:14 (the question) and 19:23-27 (the answer), and the assurances of Romans 8, particularly verses 35-39.  Others include Second Timothy 1:10, 12 and 4:6-8.  I love Hebrews 2:14-15.  And Revelation 2:10 and 14:13, as well as portions of the final two chapters.

Pastor, you will be using these several times a year for the rest of your life. Why shouldn’t you take the trouble to learn them well so that you never have to look them up or borrow someone’s Bible.  “Thy word have I hid in my heart….”

Four. Prepare well. 

You should devote time and effort to finding the best way to share those scriptures, to explain their meaning, and to make them live in the hearts of all who hear.  This is not too much to ask.

You’re doing the most important work in the universe; it deserves the best of you.  You’re being given the opportunity to speak the message of Christ to people who need its comfort and to some who will never enter your church.  Do this well; you have no idea what God will do with it. “We walk by faith, not by sight…”

Five.  Seek help.

Granted, not everyone does funerals well.  And if you put yourself in that category, you need to do one of two things.  First, if holding funerals is not part of your job description, you have every right to decline invitations.  Second, but if you have no choice in the matters–most pastors are expected to do this–then, ask a veteran friend to help you learn to do a better job of it.

Older pastors are delighted when asked to help.   Invite one to sit in the audience next time you lead a funeral.  Then, take him to lunch the next day and take notes on his comments. What you do with his suggestions is between you and the Lord.  The next day, write him a thank-you.  Repeat with other veteran ministers until you feel it no longer necessary.

Six.  Make this easier on yourself. 

It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel for every service.  We all hear of preachers who spend hours preparing the eulogy for a funeral service.  That is an unnecessary burden none of us can afford.  It’s simply not necessary to do that.

A minister should have four or five basic messages for funerals, each one taking 10 to 12 minutes.  These should be rock-solid, basic messages on the promises of God regarding death and eternal life.  The complete funeral service will often include music, possibly a hymn or two, tributes or remembrances from one or more family members, and words of eulogy or tribute from the minister, followed by the message and benediction.  The minister’s tribute to the individual will be one-of-a-kind and used this one time, but the message should be one he has used before and feels comfortable with.

Here’s one of my typical sermon outlines: Death is a) an enemy.  I Corinthians 15:26. b)  inevitable.  Hebrews 9:27.  c) an exit. Brings sorrow, separation, etc.  d) an entrance.  2 Corinthians 5:8 and Matthew 25:21.  And e) ended.  John 11:25-25 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  No more death! How wonderful is that! (This can be preached in 10-12 minutes.)

Seven.   Leave them rejoicing through their tears. 

Your message is the high point of the service.  It should leave believers rejoicing and unbelievers hungering and thirsting. It should send everyone out with the gospel message ringing in their hearts.  That message should give people reasons to believe in Jesus whether they are longtime believers or newcomers to the faith.  The hurting should be given solid comfort to strengthen their hearts.

One of my sermons focuses on the last two verses of Psalm 27.  Verse 13 gives our hope (“I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”) and verse 14 tells us to wait.  “Just you wait.”  That line (“just you wait”) sounds like the cry of a child who has been beaten up by the playground bully.  His eye is swollen, his face is bloody, his clothes are dirty.  And as he crawls to his feet again, through his tears the child sees his big brother headed this way, fire in his eyes, rolling up his sleeves.  He looks up at the bully and says, “Just you wait!”  No one had suffered more than Job.  But in the midst of his pain, through his bruises and tears he said, “I know that my redeemer liveth and at last shall stand upon the earth! Whom I shall see for myself! …Just you wait.”  Paul said, “The time of my departure is at hand…. But I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, I have finished the course. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge will award to me on that day, and not to me only, but also to all who have loved His appearing….Just you wait!”  John said, “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is…Just you wait!” David said “We shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Just you wait! (And so forth. So many great testimonials like this throughout scripture.  You can do this for a solid hour!) Finally, you end with this:  “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength! They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint. So wait upon the Lord.  Let your heart be strong. Yes, wait upon the Lord…. Just you wait.”  (A note: You cannot be reading all these scriptures.  This sermon must be well prepared and committed to memory. Even if you hold the open Bible in your hands, you cannot take the time to flip from passage to passage.  Memorize these texts and speak them clearly, slowly, strongly, solidly.) 

Eight.  Remember this…

The Word is why you are there.  When families are invaded by death and hearts are broken, nothing is more important than the Word of God and His promises.  So, throughout the service,  you should share the word.  Share it slowly, thoughtfully, and respectfully, lovingly.  “How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in His excellent word!”

Nine. When the funeral is over…

When people thank you for the message, as they will, it’s best to say something like, “You’re so kind. Thank you.”  Avoid the fake humility that says, “I’m nothing” or “Don’t thank me, thank the Lord” or “The Lord gave me that message during the night.”  Just thank them and move on.

Ten.  And when you get back to the office…

Take a few moments to pray the Father will use the seed He has sown in the hearts and lives of all who heard.  Pray for those who were grieving most and the outsiders who heard the gospel today.  And then, pray for yourself to always give your very best in service to the Master.

And now, get on with your day.  Being a busy pastor, this was just one of a hundred things you have to do today. It’s time to turn off the heaviness you have felt all morning and move on to the next thing.  This is one of the hardest skills to master but to survive in the pastorate, you must.

God bless you.




6 thoughts on “Pastor, at the funeral of a believer…

  1. One more thing I have to add: try reading the obituary BEFORE you ascend to the pulpit. Make sure you know how to pronounce all the names, and if you are unsure of some, find someone in the family you know and trust to help you go over the names.

    It is terrible for a grieving family to have to sit out there and hear names mis-pronounced or stumbled over, and I have seen the look of surprise as the pastor says something like, “One son, Wilver — er, Wilbert (whatever).” He’s sitting there, with his family, grieving over the lady you visited at the nursing home once a month, but she named him.

    Bottom line: if you read the obituary, make sure you are reading it right. Sometimes, the copy provided by the funeral home may have a spelling error or a typo. Get with someone in the family you are close to, and make sure that you don’t make a mess of the obituary.

    I have been to a couple of funerals where, even though I did not know the pastor, I was embarrassed for him, because I realized that, even though he had worked hard on the message he would give later, he was looking at the obituary for the first time while standing in the pulpit.

  2. Pastor Joe,
    I look forward to your insights and suggestions for the funeral of an unbeliever. I’ve done literally hundreds of funerals for people I did not know. I had a wonderful relationship with several funeral homes and they would call me for those who did not have a church home. It was a fantastic opportunity to preach the gospel. Again, thank you for your wisdom and practical insights. I learn something from every article you write.

  3. Excellent. Thank you. I’m not a pastor, but I would like to be when I grow up. I’m 67. 🙂

    I’ve only presided over one funeral, my mom’s 24 years ago. Being my first and possibly my only, I remember that it went quite well…at least my dear wife thought so. I made it a point to get the gospel out to all that were there. I also had my brothers pass out tracts to every mourner. Two of my saved uncles were on the front row encouraging me with their amens.

    Bless you pastor McKeever.


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