I was thirty years old and less than two years into my second pastorate. The phone rang and I answered to learn that the father of someone in our church had died suddenly. Would I do the funeral? I had never met the deceased man and knew nothing about his spiritual condition. And this was my first funeral. I had no idea what to do.
Thankfully, my own father (a veteran pastor of many years) was visiting us that weekend. I sought his advice, was able to give at least some comfort to the family, and got through the funeral.
I’ve preached lots of funerals in the decade since. Sometimes of people I knew and loved. Often of people I’ve never met and were probably non-Christians. While I never exactly look forward to preaching a funeral, I’m no longer as intimidated by them (even the hard ones) as I once was. Instead, I’ve come to view them as important evangelistic opportunities. I still lean on my dad’s advice, which I’ve slightly adapted here, and consider as three keys to leading a funeral, especially for an unbeliever.
1. Comfort the family
Losing a loved one is always an occasion for sorrow. Grieving family members need comfort and often look to the minister to provide it. And they usually aren’t looking for answers. What they need is our presence, availability, and practical help in planning the funeral.
What to do when you get that dreaded call? How do you comfort the family?
- Meet with them. When asked to do a funeral, I always ask to meet with the family a day or two before. I usually go to one of their homes. It’s a time not only to plan the logistics of the funeral service (which I always talk through with the family), but also to connect with them personally (some people often for the first time).
- Pray with them. Even unbelievers will usually expect this. Even if they’re not religious, they’ll almost never object. Sometimes they will find your prayers with them uniquely comforting.
- Be available to help them. Mobilize the congregation to serve them, perhaps by providing a meal. This often lifts a burden from their shoulders and becomes a tangible way to demonstrate care.
2. Honor the deceased
The second key is to honor the deceased. This is one of the purposes of a funeral service, usually through some kind of eulogy. But doing this well requires preparation. You will, of course, get a copy of the obituary. But you will want more information to share than just the bare biographical details. So, when you meet with the family, ask what they appreciated about their lost loved one. They may talk about character traits they admired, special memories they cherish, or interesting details about the loved one’s life. Take notes and use these insights as the basis for your eulogy.
This isn’t, however, always as easy as you might think. Some people don’t have great things to say about the character of a deceased relative. There are often trails of brokenness and regret running through their lives and fragmenting their relationships. The brokenness should not be dragged into the service, but we should be careful to avoid saying positive things that will ring untrue. If there aren’t specific virtues to praise, sketch out the basic events and accomplishments of the deceased person’s life.
People are often looking for hope that the deceased has gone to heaven, or some other kind of peaceful after life. What do you say if the person was not a Christian? We should avoid two extremes: don’t give false hope (“I know they’re in a better place”); but don’t make judgments either. Our job isn’t to say what a person’s final destiny is, but to point people to a just and merciful God who reconciles sinners to himself through Christ.
3. Preach the gospel
Finally, preach the gospel. A funeral service is one of the rare occasions where unbelievers come to church and listen to a pastor. We must honor the occasion by providing comfort and honoring the memory of the departed. But it’s also an opportunity to share the gospel and point people to Jesus. Here are several guidelines:
- Be honest. Don’t soften the sting of death by pious platitudes. I’ve sometimes heard preachers speak about death in terms much too sentimental and sweet. While this may give superficial comfort, it misses one of the distinctive notes about the Christian message, which presents death as our great enemy. Acknowledging out loud that death feels wrong – that it shocks us, even angers us – can be an important step in empathizing with those grieving. And it sets the backdrop for proclaiming the good news of a Savior who defeated death and rose from the dead.
- Be short. While the gospel itself is a stumbling block, we shouldn’t give unnecessary cause for offense by talking for too long. A forty-five minute sermon is way too long.
- Be clear. Don’t assume people know the good news. Don’t preach religion, morality, or a political position. In fact, as Tim Keller and others have often said, people need to see a sharp distinction between the good news and good advice. They don’t need to be told what to do, but what Christ has already done. Tell them about the God who so loved the world that he sent his Son to live obediently on our behalf, die as our substitute, pay for our sins, and then rise from the dead in triumph over sin, death and the grave.
Ecclesiastes 7:1 says, “A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.” This doesn’t mean that death itself is better than life, but that a funeral is more likely to do us good than a birthday party. Funerals force us to face up to our mortality, take stock of our lives, and contemplate life’s biggest questions.
As pastors, we are often entrusted with the role of leading these occasions. It’s an important stewardship. May we take as our own the famous motto of Richard Baxter: “I preached as never sure to preach again and as a dying man to dying men.”