Only two things are certain in this life: death and taxes. My maternal grandfather passed away on April 15, 2009, proving that point entirely. I was actually visiting my hometown for a job interview the same weekend he passed, so it was a bittersweet blessing to be home at the same time Grandpa Jimmy died. He was my third grandparent to die while I was in seminary (proceeded in death by both of my dad’s parents) and the third funeral that I was asked to “preach.”
Though I was finishing up my seminary studies and graduating only a few weeks later, my third funeral during seminary made me realize this: I was ill-prepared to officiate funerals.
A funeral is an interesting thing, and if you went to seminary, you will likely be asked to officiate one. You don’t have to be licensed or ordained (unlike weddings); you don’t even have to love Jesus (but, believe me, it helps). Likely, your family will look at you, see that “you went to seminary,” and, thus, you’re preaching it, preacher.
All kinds of factors come into play when thinking about funerals, each one requiring an incredible amount of sensitivity. Not many people get to walk right beside a family in their grief, so take it as an honorable and joyful burden. Still, you have to consider so many things:
- Believer or not?: This is question no. 1. It will change everything about how you preach, what you say, and why you say it. While the consequences of being a believer or not at death is clear from Scripture (and well-covered in the classroom), it is an entirely different issue to be sitting next to those who just lost the person they loved. Just remember this: I’ve never met anyone who didn’t think their spouse/mom/dad/friend was in heaven.
- What about children?: Luckily, I actually did address this issue theologically (thanks, Dr. Horrell), but what about practically? A few years ago I was called into a hospital room in the wee hours of the morning to find a family who lost their baby of only a few hours. But how do you honor Jesus, a family, and a beautiful life cut short all at the same time? Come, Lord Jesus.
- Was it sudden?: A suicide, a heart attack, a car crash. These things rattle people. For a long time. Every time I’m in my hometown, I drive by the spot where my friend, Brandon, was buried the last week of my 9th grade year. He died in a car accident. Parts of me still haven’t recovered. Several years ago our church was undone by a suicide, and I read of my church back in Dallas losing one of its elders to the same thing. Even if those people knew Jesus, sudden deaths change people.
- Do you know them?: You may think that you will only do the funerals of people in your congregation, and you might…but I doubt it. People lose family members, and many of them have no idea where to turn. “Well, he used to go to church many years ago” means that they don’t know who will do their loved one’s funeral and they need someone.
While seminary can’t really give you a context for doing funerals (it’s not like we are in medical school and can practice in a cadaver lab), it certainly can help you along the way. Here’s what I’m learning as I walk this road.
- Know your flow: Funerals (and weddings, for that matter) generally fall into a simple pattern or liturgy. Funerals are a little looser in some instances because you aren’t ordaining something. But you usually expect Scripture, music, a eulogy (or eulogies), and a message. Knowing the flow will help guide the family.
- Get a mentor: Having another friend in Christ who can help you with some of these things proves invaluable. I have no idea how many times I’ve gone to Kevin, our senior pastor, and said something like this: “I have no idea what to do in this situation.” A mentor can walk you through what you need to know and what you need to think about. I remember doing a funeral and having Kevin, who was helping me, even give me walking directions. Only pastor at your church? Find another pastor in town. No other pastors in town? Find one in the next town over. But find one.
- Learn from others: You can find funeral manuscripts from wonderful pastors online. My suggestion: get them and read them. If you can watch them, watch them. If you can attend them, attend them. I’m serious. See how seasoned pastors minister during funerals. It’s gold.
- Have a go-to resource: If you are in a bind, I’d suggest this handbook for weddings and funerals. It gives great examples of funerals to perform in different instances and ways to approach them. If you don’t want this one (I personally wish it looked more like a black Bible than a bound book), then find one you’re comfortable with.
- Remember this–you are the family’s guide: You won’t be the expert, but people will look to you for the answers. You need not lie to them, but you need to rest on Jesus and let the Spirit minister through you. You can give great comfort to a family simply by walking through the experience with them, suggesting Scriptures, helping finalize a program, and guiding them through the ceremony. (Also, if you get stuck, ask the funeral director. They are there to help as well.)
- Remember this more–It is about Jesus: Regardless of whether or not the person knew Christ, you do. And since you do, you take Jesus with you. Don’t leave Him at the door because you aren’t sure how He fits. No, you won’t be able to speak of this person’s legacy in Christ, but you can still talk about the goodness of God and our need for grace. You can talk about what is true: death is real, sin is real, and Jesus wants to bring healing. You aren’t working to please man but God (Gal 1:10).
I am sure there is more to write, and I have much more to learn. Just last Sunday I was asked by a woman in our congregation if I would do her husband’s funeral (if God doesn’t decide to heal his cancer). I pray I bring everyone in that situation honor. Death and taxes are sure. More sure is Jesus. Bring the comfort only He can at a time people need Him most.