From the Shepherd’s Nook: Funerals and the Pastor

From John Frye

The Pastor and Funerals

If there is one area of ministry where some pastors should be charged with malpractice, it is in the conducting of funerals. My primary complaint is that I have attended funerals where the pastor mentioned the deceased’s name maybe once and never again. The pastor did not acknowledge family members present or speak to their grief. The clergyperson piously droned on and on about whatever tasteless pabulum he or she could cook up. This is a galling travesty of ministry. The other injustice is the uber-zealous pastor who takes the funeral as an occasion to preach “hell and high water,” to get his captive audience saved for “all ee-turn-nay-taaay!” To squander a very holy “thin place” like a funeral either on meaningless drivel or evangelistic bombast is to toy with ministry, to act as a pretend pastor.

In my early years of ministry a colleague shared with me a short, ministry practice article that he read in Leadership Journal. I forget the year, issue and author. A pastor had developed a series of questions to ask family members (and friends) of the deceased. The answers help the pastor to create a verbal, true-to-life portrait of the loved one who died.  For years I carried those questions with me as I met with the families in preparation for the funeral services. Soon the questions became part of me. Questions like (let’s call the deceased Katie) : In a word or two or a short phrase, how would you characterize Katie’s life? What were Katie’s favorite causes? What Bible passages or stories did Katie refer to? Who were Katie’s heroes? What were Katie’s hobbies and interests? What were Katie’s favorite songs? Did Katie d have any favorite sayings or words unique to her (that we can say publicly)? None of us are perfect, so what were some of Katie’s imperfections? A funeral must be real. It may include humor. What is Katie’s legacy, that is, how is the world a better place because Katie lived 72 years? If Katie could say something at her own funeral, what would she say to family and friends?  I would try to write down almost every word said. I would encourage all present to participate. With the words of reflection and memories, I would create a word picture, a eulogy about the deceased based exactly on those who knew Katie the best and loved her the most. I would speak about a real person who lived and died and left her mark.

My pastoral colleagues, this is so meaningful to people. After the last funeral I did not long ago for someone in my former church, a long-time friend with whom I served said to me, “John, I hope when I die you will be around to do my funeral.” I felt awkward. He continued, “I’m not kidding. You make funerals a God-moment for all who attend. I want you to do mine.” When I hear stuff like that, I think, “Thank you, pastor, who wrote in Leadership Journal years ago on how to make a funeral meaningful.”

I’ve had an AC/DC song played at a funeral, country and western songs, rock ‘n roll, jazz—all kinds of music, including organ music and hymns, guitars and Hillsongs. One time I had a motorcycle parked by the casket, or fishing equipment, paintings, quilts, farm implements. I think it’s best to have a family member share about the deceased. Hearing from loved ones is so important. If they can’t share, I ask them to write something that I can read on their behalf. My favorite text to use, if the family does not select one or the deceased did not have one, is John 11. Jesus’ words to Mary and Martha and his famous “I am the resurrection and the life” declaration slip in the Gospel so well. A funeral service is thick with the Holy Spirit. Being sensitive to the context, the Gospel needs to be stated confidently as true. No long, arduous appeals for faith are required. The Gospel compassionately spoken carries within it the power to persuade in times of grief in the face of death.

I try to keep the graveside service, the committal service, brief. I usually read the opening verses of Revelation 21, say a brief committal prayer, and then offer condolences to the immediate family. The sensitive thing if the funeral is for an unbeliever is to offer comfort and direction without making empty promises. I will usually pray if the funeral is for an unbeliever, “Father in heaven, we commit Katie eternally to you, knowing that you are both good and just and will render to all according to their deeds.” This is true, but it does not assure a reunion as promised to those “who fall asleep in Jesus.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ann

    I am in total agreement… I was horrified at my grandmother’s funeral just a few months back. She was Christian but her younger brothers and sisters are Jehovah’s Witness and the minister knew that. He took advantage of their need to be at the funeral (in a Lutheran church) to say goodbye to her to knock us all over the head with a sermon of fear about where we would go when we die. It was absolutely horrible and I’m sure none of them ever have a desire to step foot in a church again. What an abuse of the Gospel.

  • Mike Mercer

    John, as a hospice chaplain, I cannot thank you enough for this. Your approach mirrors mine very closely, and I too have been embarrassed for our clergy guild when I hear the way so many approach funerals. I’ve even been asked to do a second memorial service for the family after another preacher botched up the funeral. It’s about love and kindness. Personal recognition of a unique life and its relationships. God’s grace and goodness toward that person and family. You nailed it, brother.

  • Bob Kaylor

    Let me push back a little bit. While I certainly agree that a funeral needs to acknowledge the grief of the family, it’s not primarily a time to deify the deceased. The best way we help families move through grief is by acknowledging that a death has taken place and then proclaiming Christ’s power over death and the promise of resurrection. Too many funerals become “celebration of life” services that have very little to do with even recognizing that a death has taken place. The funeral is the one place where the church has a chance to speak about our primary hope–the defeat of death and the restoration of our whole selves and God’s good creation. People begin to heal when they finally acknowledge that death is a reality, as is the promise of resurrection. We too often surrender the Christian message of ultimate hope to well-meaning family and friends who have bad theology or who refuse to acknowledge the gravitas of the day. I’m not suggesting that we cut out reference to the deceased altogether, nor should we use the funeral as a hellacious warning to the living (a form of spiritual abuse in that context, I think). What I am suggesting is that a funeral should be a funeral and that, in addition, we should provide an alternative venue for friends and family to say what they want to say, to share those memories, to raise a toast, etc. The concept of the “wake” is something I think could be recaptured, which allows the funeral to do the healing work it is intended to do theologically, psychologically, and emotionally. Tom Long’s book “Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral” has been tremendously helpful to me in thinking this through.

  • MatthewS

    Great, great advice. I’ve only done a few funerals and did not have the mentoring for it I would have hoped. I instinctively knew to ask questions before-hand to get personal tidbits and then to repeat the person’s name several times during the service. It makes sense that if this is a time to honor and celebrate that person, then the little things that made them unique are good to name.

    Towards the end of the sermon, another way I sometimes use the person’s name is by reading some of the “there is a time to…” verses from Ecclesiastes and then say “John Doe’s time to be born was January 1, 19xx and his time to die was August 2, 2013.”

  • Clay Knick

    I pretty do what you & John do, too. Asking questions is important even if I’ve know the person for quite some time. The family knows him/her in why that I don’t. This was quite good, John.

  • metanoia

    I had the wonderful privilege of conducting 50 funerals over a span of two years. This was a new pastoral assignment and I had very little personal knowledge of the deceased. My approach was quite simple. I did the “nuts and bolts” eulogy which included: when, where they were born, family genealogy, chief occupation, hobbies and interests and whatever details of the circumstances of death the family wanted me to share. I would then turn to 2-3 carefully chosen family members or friends (cleared by the family of course) who would give the more personal eulogy. Those who know the deceased best are in a better position to deliver the eulogy. While I did ask about church involvement, favorite Scripture verses, hymns, etc., those were incorporated into the service. I would then preach about the blessed hope and encourage the living on how to move forward and sometimes even to make a personal declaration of faith, as the Spirit moved or it seems appropriate. If anyone had any complaints, I never heard them. To expect the presiding pastor to deliver a personalized eulogy is often difficult if not impossible. I fit in wherever I could best fit in and trusted that the family would know best what they wanted.

  • craig cottongim

    After 20 years in ministry, I can honestly say I feel I do more ministry in funerals than in weddings. Not to sound morbid, but I feel I really minister to families and enjoy the sense of effective ministry; whereas in weddings, for example, everything is so commercialized… With a funeral, I’m often with the family in the last days of their loved one, in the planning with the funeral home, and then afterwards, we usually will eat together. I always follow up in the weeks to come as well. I find funerals to be a vital part of ministry. Hope that doesn’t sound weird.

    PS: thankfully, in all my years, I’ve never had to do a funeral for a young child, that would be another story, one too difficult.

  • Gloria Hopewell

    Really! This has rarely been my experience. Perhaps once in 25 years when I heard a brand new RC priest who didn’t know the deceased give a theological lecture. And, whether I know the deceased personally or not, I always get stories and remembrances from family and friends and acknowledge the grief and the comfort of memories.

  • Roy Inzunza

    John, thanks for sharing. I was just about to start writing some questions of reflection down for a family and funeral service I’ll be conducting and then I saw this post. You hit the nail on the head. I will be incorporating the questions and will add one or two more.

    I always appreciate the perspective you offer. Peace.

  • Tress

    Thank you so much for your words “A funeral service is thick with the Holy Spirit. Being sensitive to the context, the Gospel needs to be stated confidently as true. No long, arduous appeals for faith are required. The Gospel compassionately spoken carries within it the power to persuade in times of grief in the face of death.” Last Monday I officiated a funeral for current outlaw motorcycle club member. There were many many unsaved people. I basically tossed my notes and was led by the Holy Spirit with my words of comfort, God’s love, presence, and comfort. I closed with a blessing to each person in the name of God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Saving Name of Jesus. To my surprise, I received many hugs and thanks from unchurched people. I spoke their language and loved them in their grief. My prayer is that my 30 minutes with the represented a Loving Father who is present for them, just waiting…

  • gingoro

    I hate it when ministers picture what the deceased is doing at this moment. For example I have heard that at this moment the deceased is asking God about some problem in theology, in prophecy… etc that particularly concerned them in this life. As I see it all we can say is that the deceased is in God’s care. Furthermore I have no idea what simultaneity means from here to a star like Alpha Centauri let alone what it means between our time and God’s abode.


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