Do’s and Don’ts When You Preach a Funeral
“I went to social media to listen to pastors….My question was simple: What are some do’s and don’ts for preaching funerals? Several hundred pastors responded.” - Rainer
Under “Do Preach the Gospel”: Be pointed. Be sure to say something like, “Despite common belief, not everyone goes to heaven when they die.” Many people at funerals believe that and need to have it dispelled. Bring up hell, tell them that Jesus, Who loved us and died for sin, spoke about hell more than anyone whose words are recorded in Scripture and that He said it is a place people go who died having failed to repent of sin and believe in Him.
Interesting story. A family in the community needed a pastor for a funeral, and I said that I would do it. The day before the funeral, a son of the deceased came by the church, put a check on my desk, talked a bit about his mother, and then said that his brother insisted on one thing: that the pastor does not preach a “hellfire and brimstone sermon.” I slid the man’s check back to him and told him that while I didn’t think my message would be categorized as “hellfire and brimstone,” I would bring up heaven and hell. I told him they could get someone else to do the service if they wanted to. He got kind of flustered since the funeral was the next day, knowing they’d have a hard time getting another pastor on short notice, and he just dropped his brother’s concern. The funeral went on. I have no idea what his brother thought. But it does ruffle feathers, especially when the deceased and the family are nearly all lost, to hear of the reality of heaven in hell in the context of the gospel. However, many times at such a funeral, there has been one saved person in the group of family and friends who thanked me for giving a salvation message.
For many years I have practiced the suggestions Rainer mentions. I would qualify the suggestion about the obituary: I never read all of the obituary word for word. But I do read parts of it. The family, of course, has already read it, but they appreciate hearing from the pastor some highlights from the obituary and the mention of some family names.
Charity Baptist Church
Some comments I almost always use at every funeral:
100% of people die. No Exceptions. You will not be the exception.
Cemeteries are filled with people who thought the world couldn’t get along without them.
One day you too will be in this place, but not as someone paying their respects. For you will be the one who has died. You will not sit in a chair there but will be here in the front. You will be the one people have come to see one last time.
God knows exactly how many breaths you will take your entire life. Every breath you take is one less that you have left.
Death is a spiritual event that has physical consequences.
In Jesus Christ there is help for every hurt, hope for every failure, forgiveness for every sin. But only for those who trust Christ as Savior.
Charity Baptist Church
I do recommend reading the obituary, but agree with Wally about shortening it if it is quite long. Often the obituaries are quite brief so it is not a problem to read them all. I also like to talk to the family ahead of time and ask if one of the family members would like to read the obituary. Many people do not like to be up front, but for some people being able to participate provides some closure.
I recently did another funeral for a church member who went to Jesus at age 94, plus 2 days. After almost 28.5 years serving here, I realize I am burying family who are friends, and not just church members. Recently, I sat down and asked a question of myself that an intern might ask. What is the purpose of a funeral? What are you as a pastor trying to accomplish? My answer was three-fold. To the glory of God, 1). I seek to comfort the grieving. The Holy Spirit uses the Word to provide perspective, examples, and the comforting truth of Jesus as the sympathetic, yet victorious Savior and Shepherd. 2). I seek to encourage the living. A funeral message is for the living, while the eulogy time is for remembering the departed. The one who died should not be ignored, nor are they to be worshiped. I often take the obituary and personalize it into the present, so that it is fresh and doesn’t sound like it came from the newspaper or website. But I always seek to minister the Word of God into the situation, often utilizing something from the departed person’s life to bridge into the bible message. I try to be very personable, reflective, compassionate, and tender as I minister. Grief ministry where the pastor is engaged, visits, asks questions, and comes alongside the hurting builds connection points that help people hear the gospel when it is presented. It can also lead to trusting Christ, and becoming a disciple. I have seen it a lot. People who are hurting are drawn to those who are compassionate. 3). I will always share the gospel fully. People listening are facing their own mortality. You don’t have to be a yeller or screamer to get people to consider the end. Ecclesiastes 3 and 7 open the door wide for compassionate, yet directive evangelism. I seek to invite the perishing to believe in Christ and His claims. Grave side committal services are so poignant and final. The stones are yelling “as we were you will become.” A final thought: it is so good to know that God can use our imperfect and stumbling efforts of faithfulness to plant a seed and bring it forth in His time. You just never know when it will come to fruition. Blessings ~ Jeff
On open mics ~ I ask the family. If yes, then we do that early in the service, and in a controlled way. This is helpful if you don’t know the person that you are doing the service for, as others can contribute. If you choose to have no open mic, invite people to write out something, and then you can read it for them. I always go last, so that the focus goes to the Word of God. This is critical as well, because if you get the order reversed, someone may contradict everything you just preached, stealing away the seed like in the parable of soils.
On length ~ shorter sermon length is not necessarily better. That is culture talking. Be sure you are aware of who your audience is and what is needed. I recently did a fifth funeral for a family. It was the patriarch. I had the connections and the relationship with them to spend some time processing while sharing God’s Word. You can’t do that, giving them what they need to consider, in a hurry. Furthermore, when someone of legacy standing in your church goes to glory, you are going to minister to your church family, and their family in 10 minutes, maybe 20 in a message? Sounds almost disrespectful. Now, I am not advocating preaching for 90 minutes, but I can say that for a Christian funeral with some music, testimonies/memories, pastoral eulogy and message, it is not uncommon to be at 75 minutes easy. My take ~ Jeff