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.”