Updated: Feb 23
The local funeral home calls me from time to time to lead a funeral for someone in the community who did not belong to a church, but their family wants a pastor to lead the service. I try to accept as often as possible since it is a beautiful opportunity to share the gospel.
Last Tuesday, I received such a call and did the funeral on Thursday. The funeral director said they call on our church because we do funerals differently and get positive feedback from the families we serve.
Someone once asked me if it was hard to do a funeral for someone I had never met. There are challenges, but I have adopted some guiding principles that make it easier. Here are a few of those guiding principles:
1. Make it personal but don't pretend to be part of the family! In addition to reading the obituary, I always call someone from the family before the funeral. I try to find out as much as I can about the person in 15-20 minutes. The insights, stories, and memories gleaned in that phone calls accomplish two objectives: 1. Connects you to the family before the funeral, and 2. Helps you make the service personal.
Caveat: Most in attendance will know that you have never met the deceased. So don't pretend to have known the person. Say things like, "I was told that Beverly liked motorcycles." Rather than "I know Beverly liked motorcycles." If we come across as pretending to truly know the person, it could be offensive to the people we are trying to serve.
2. Use the deceased's name often. People like hearing the name of their loved ones. It makes the service less cold and formal. But be sure to get the name right! When I talk to family before the funeral, I usually ask what name they generally went by. Sometimes the obituary will list the legal name and not the name people called them.
3. Weave stories / tidbits into your message. As you give the gospel message, point out how elements from their life connect to the gospel. I'm not saying assume their eternal state – that is a mistake. However, because all humans are created in the image of God, they can and do reflect the qualities and characteristics of God whether they realize it or not.
Concerning the length of your message: In most cases, err on the side of short rather than long. Your church may be used to a 45-minute sermon, but the people you are serving at this type of funeral are almost certainly not used to that. I shoot for 15 minutes – but that's my personal preference.
For example, at last week's funeral, I talked about how the deceased loved to create things in the kitchen or through cross-stitching. I said, "As a pastor, I tend to look at things through a theological lens. I wonder if Susan's love to create things comes from her creator." Then I spoke about the beauty of God and the gospel.
4. Read Scripture. This should go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: read the Word. I ask the family if they know of a meaningful passage that they would like read, but if not, not to worry, I have plenty of suggestions.
I try to include at least one familiar passage of Scripture such as John 3:16, the Lord's Prayer, or Psalm 23 so they can feel connected to the Scripture Reading.
5. Give the gospel! Again, I should not have to say this, but I will anyway – sharing the gospel is the reason why you accepted the funeral assignment. Be explicitly clear about the gospel. Sometimes a distant family member who was in attendance will come up afterward and tell me, "I wasn't expecting to hear the gospel here, but glad you gave it!" that happened last week. A distant family member who was a Christian attended and was grateful God supplied a gospel message for their family.
6. Be available but don't hover. When I get to the funeral home, I try to find the person I spoke to on the phone first. I often ask the funeral director to introduce us. I tell them that I am there during the visitation hours not to intrude but to be available if someone wants to talk or pray. Then I try to stay available but in the background.
Be sure to go up to the body, look at every picture board, and watch the slideshow. In short, be interested in their family for that hour or two. I often see a picture, award, or something else displayed that I work into the funeral. Last week, I referenced a letter two grandchildren wrote years before that was on display in my remarks. It fit well with the moment, and I almost missed seeing it because it was tucked away on the side by some flowers.
7. Don't make it about you. We preachers tend to make things about us. It's OK to share a personal story in your remarks but be cautious about how much you talk about yourself. People don't need to know much more about you than the fact that you are a pastor who cares for their family in their moment of grief and that you have a message of hope.
Not making it about us also includes our preferences about what should or should not be in a funeral service. While there are some things I would still say no to, I am far less picky about what is in the service than I would be if it were someone from my church family.
Someone once wanted to play "Christmas Shoes" at the funeral because their loved one enjoyed the Christmas season. Instead of saying no to a song I really don't like, I used it as an opportunity to point back to Christ. I said,
We get glimpses of beauty here on earth now that point us to the fact that all will be beautiful one day, and we will not have to deal with the ugliness of death and pain anymore. The song we heard earlier about a boy wanting shoes for his mother to be beautiful to meet Jesus is emotional. We can only imagine what that boy would have been going through watching his mother pass away. And his desire for her to be beautiful for Jesus is touching. I would love to say to that boy that his mother's beauty does not come from shoes. Jesus already saw his mom as beautiful because he created her, loves her, and died for her. One day beauty will prevail over the ugliness of death. Only because of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.
8. Be on time. Please don't be late. Be early. You do not want to add to the day's stress by being late or even almost late.
9. Use the funeral director! Instead of boring the family with many questions, I get as much information as possible from the funeral director. I ask questions like, "What did they die of?" "Are there family dynamics I should be aware of?" and "Who seems to be the most influential person in the family?" Knowing this information ahead of time is highly beneficial.
What suggestions would you add to this list?