Conducting a Funeral for an Unsaved Person
Question: What is your purpose, strategy, philosophy, etc. in conducting a funeral for a person who was not necessarily saved?
John Carter – East Syracuse, NY
I always keep this in mind when preparing funerals: The primary purposes of a funeral/memorial event is to create an environment for family and friends to
(1) remember the departed honorably,
(2) grieve the loss authentically, and
(3) provide hope for the future.
In that order.
I do not believe the primary purpose of a funeral is evangelism – although that may occur as a result of doing the first three well.
When a believer departs, the challenge is often to not allow the people to pass from purpose (1) to purpose (3) without allowing a real experience with purpose (2). But when we fail to grieve authentically, the impact of purposes (1) and (2) become less effective and cause the service to feel shallow. Especially to those who are in grief. Without grief being given its proper place, we diminish the heart’s capacity to heal.
When a person dies without Christ, the third purpose becomes the challenge, as purposes (1) and (2) are typically present, naturally. It is never advisable to comment definitively on the final state of the departed. Christ alone knows those who are His and the conditions of a person’s heart in the moments before and during their death are a sacred secret between them and God.
I have found it helpful to say something like this,
“When ________ left this life, they went immediately into the Hands of a perfectly righteous and loving God who deals with sin justly and loves to show mercy to sinners.”
Then in the comments that follow, I point towards Christ’s love for fallen people and focus on the promise that He is the “Resurrection and the Life. If we live and believe in Him, we shall never die…. And when we die, yet shall we live…” I state that ______’s life is over. But ours is not. Will you and I believe this promise and receive this gift of eternal life?
Walker Schurz – Lusaka, Zambia
So much of a funeral for a saved person centers around the reality of heaven, and the reunion of believers one day in our future. Because of these Biblical realities, we can help family members to “grieve with hope.” There is a true and glorious hope. Yet, for someone who dies without Jesus, there is no hope, no reunion, and no place where sorrows cease. For the unsaved departed, sorrows have multiplied, and are permanent for eternity. I cannot forget these truths and cannot lie to the family that their loved one is “in a better place.” They are not.
But what I can do as a pastor is to minister healing to family and friends. Jesus was and is anointed for the brokenhearted, and life for living continues after their tragic loss. I try to focus my words to them, and that God is a present help in times of trouble. I remove all mention of the resurrection, joy in heaven, or any indication that their loved one was received by God into their eternal home. I ask God to help me to be kind, empathetic, and loving. God shows up in our darkest moments, and I try to represent His heart to them.
It will be likely that unsaved people will attend the funeral of an unsaved friend. I briefly present the gospel message, with a challenge to all – are you ready for your funeral? I invite lost people to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior and make heaven their home.
Josh Payne – Troy, PA
We see people come to Christ at almost every funeral we do. Our primary purpose at a funeral is threefold: First and foremost, we are there to celebrate the life lost. Second, we are there to comfort the grieving. Third, we extend hope to those who are alive by clearly articulating God’s path for eternal life. We are sensitive to the temperature of the family and most of all the Holy Spirit on “how” we give an invitation. Sometimes that is straight forward just like a Sunday service. Other times we go all the way through the appeal and then let everyone know that if they are unsure about eternity, we will be down front to talk and pray after the service. For many families, they rejoice and take great comfort in witnessing others come to Christ at their loved one’s funeral. It is redemptive for them in feeling like their loss has brought someone else new life. We also have Brother Cooke’s “Life After Death” book available for family and friends.
Rick Jolley – Yakima, WA
Oh, what an awesome subject! Well, here goes.
I’m sure we’d all rather do funerals for folks that are for sure and for certain Heaven-bound. With that said, it seems the purpose is more or less the same: to try and bring some comfort, maybe even direction into what is possibly the most emotionally stressful time possible to us humans.
Strategy? PRAY. Meet with as many family members and friends as possible and TAKE NOTES. I find that meeting helps TREMENDOUSLY at helping lighten the mood when necessary. Hopefully there are Believers in that group who will help determine how we can help. Believers or not, I always let them know we will do our best to help celebrate a life while still offering eternal life to those in attendance.
Final thought: while family and friends are looking to YOU during this time for help and comfort (and you CAN help and Comfort), I find it VERY helpful to lean on Funeral Directors as much as possible. They do this every day and have great wisdom to bring to bear.
Kevin Berry – Lansing, MI
My thoughts on funerals for the unsaved:
This is a GREAT OPPORTUNITY.
Show compassion like Jesus.
Give people the opportunity to be born again.
Show compassion like Jesus.
Jesus cares about the anguish of people’s souls… so should we.
Alan Wachob – Ontario, Canada
While this is an uncomfortable position for an officiating minister to be in, it can still be an opportunity to minister encouragement to those present. If the deceased is not saved, a funeral service would not be the time to declare their eternal fate and make that the focal point. That would obviously discourage and add to the grief of those attending, especially the family. However, after honouring the person’s life and memory within the sermon, this would be a good opportunity to share about the fleeting nature of life and mortality we all must face (this is all through Scripture). Then, share on how God made us for more than this life and how much He loves us. He is our Creator who also became our Saviour. You can share how eternal life is freely provided for us through Jesus and share the Gospel without referring to the one who just passed. Make it about those who remain. Make it about God’s love. Give everyone hope. Tell people that now is always the best time to receive God’s love by believing in Christ.
Personally, with the family at another time, you may have to answer tough questions about where their loved one is spending eternity. When we help people grapple with this, we must do so without compromising Scripture. One thing I have said in the past is that God alone is the Judge when it comes to eternal things, and only He truly knows what decisions people have made regarding eternity. Sometimes, we never really know for certain. If we don’t know, we leave it with Him. I have also told people that we must remember that God the Judge is the same God who gave His Son to suffer and die for us, so we could be saved. If anyone should be entrusted with eternal things, it should be God Himself. If He did this much to save us, then we can trust Him with righteous judgement. He cares more about our loved one than anyone on earth possibly could. We leave it with Him. This can bring a measure of comfort to those who are grieving the loss of an unsaved loved one. I then remind people that for those of us who remain, we should not delay our own response to the Gospel, we should settle it now. When we place our faith in Christ in this lifetime, we have the assurance of salvation that only He can bring.
Jon Albrecht – Superior, NE
I have had to conduct funerals for people that I didn’t even know. I try to make the funeral as personal as possible. I ask family members for fond memories or even humorous ones. It helps to break the tension. I focus on Jesus throughout the service and always give those at the funeral a chance to pray and receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I avoid making statements that they are in Heaven or with Jesus if I don’t know that to be a fact.
John Lowe – Warsaw, IN
I do funerals of the lost and those who are in question. It may be the only chance we are given to reach their families.
- I make sure I learn as much as possible about the individual.
- I make clear to the family that I will present the Gospel and an open prayer of salvation.
- I share the memories, stories etc., I have learned, then I share what I call the Sweet 16: (a) Mark16 – preach the gospel, Heaven said go. (b) Acts 16 – the lost are asking for help, Heaven said come (c) Luke 16 – man in hell does not want his family there. I take time to delicately explain this. Hell says please prevent my family from coming here.
Wendy Preston – Aylesbury, United Kingdom
My thoughts are always geared toward family and friends at such times. Celebrating the life of the departed one is very important. Memories such as photographs that include those present at the service always add warmth, and it keeps the door open to subsequent casual visits that hopefully will allow an opportunity for the Gospel.
Gentle humour goes a long way with a genuine appreciativeness for the deceased allows for friendships to grow.
I have performed several funerals for the unsaved and I’m always warmed by the openness of family and friends. It’s a day to celebrate an individual and doing that is yet another warm heart memory for those left behind. Interestingly, on some occasions I have come to find out after-the-fact that the one we assumed was unsaved did actually become a Christian in their final moments. Everybody is special and the secret things belong to the Lord.
Gregory Carr – Nanuet, NY
I see my role in funerals as one who brings comfort to the family. There is nothing we can do for the one who transitioned.
I’ve had to do two or three of these types of funerals and they were all with members of my family. When I was questioned because they didn’t think the loved one was saved, I simply share along these lines.
The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
We don’t know what type of encounter our loved one had before he or she transitioned. That’s between them and God, so let’s go with what we do know.
God said He so loved the world that he sent His Son, to give people the opportunity to be saved.
Jesus said knock and the door will be opened. He didn’t mention that you had to knock at a specific period of time before you transition.
Then I ask if they believe God is merciful. Since that answer is yes, I share that we can then be sure that God did everything possible for their loved one to be saved before they transitioned.
At the funeral, I don’t dwell on it. I preach life and hope at the funeral and do an altar call.
I share that for the people there, that while they may have questions about the loved one, let’s choose to believe he/ she received before leaving. But we can make it a sure thing for those who are still present.
I hope this helps.
Jim Graff – Victoria, TX
Funerals are a wonderful time to help friends and family members of the deceased taste and experience the goodness of God and the love of His church. I have found the following to be helpful:
1. Build a funeral team of hosts, ushers, and ministers wisely. Also, a dinner host for those desiring a fellowship meal following the service or burial. People come in an emotional state where they can be turned on or turned off very easily. It’s wonderful to see broken hearts being ministered to well the moment they enter our church. And immediately following the funeral too.
2. Goal one is to honor the history of the person and the potential of the family. I like to have our funeral service director give families the opportunity to have their loved one’s favorite scriptures, songs, poems, sayings, or memories shared. We also allow 15 minutes in the service for the person to be eulogized by ministry leaders or peers in the church as well as by friends and family members. In addition, I call the family member in charge before the funeral to comfort them, discern the spirit of the service, and to become aware of a story or two that will bless everyone as I share.
3. I root the spirit of the service in a scripture that is supportive of the funeral’s goal. At some point, I share another scripture that makes the hope and pathway to eternal life clear within the message. I take pains to preach the good news and work to make sure it settles in hearts that way. It is easy to do once everyone’s heart is warmed by everything else. We see many give their heart to Jesus and some join our church family each year through funerals.
Rennie Ohl – Warner, OK
I put them in God’s hands and believe for the best. When I do a funeral like that, I think about the thief on the cross. That helps me a lot.
Sam Smucker – Lancaster, PA
In my 45 years of ministry, I have officiated many funerals of people where there were questions about their salvation. I usually would talk to the family and ask about the person’s life and good points. Point those things out but then also make an extra effort to proclaim the gospel to the people in attendance. I usually do not think a funeral should be an evangelistic service. I am careful to not say the person that died is in a better place if it is not known of his or her salvation. The love of God should be proclaimed to everyone there and the importance of having a personal commitment to Jesus.
Tim Gilligan – Ocala, FL
My approach for any funeral is that a funeral is “about” the person who has passed, but it is “for” those who are present.
I would always encourage that the family, friends, and minister give the honor that would be due and celebrate the memories made. This is not the setting to disparage the deceased.
I would prayerfully consider how to tactfully mention that the deceased now has a quite different view of eternity. Without graphic detail, I would then pivot and minister “to” or “for” those who present, regarding making the rest of their lives count with eternity in mind. This must be handled with great care and perhaps with the consent of the close family if they are in fact believers. The strongest truth to be presented is that God is a righteous and merciful Judge.
Also, and very importantly, a funeral is a vital event to officially begin the healing process. Properly grieving must take place and a funeral helps to signal that beginning.
As with every funeral, there are many unique considerations, depending upon the individual who has passed, and the spiritual condition of the family that remains. Prayerfully endeavor to be discerning and compassionate, never approach it as “one size fits all.” The Holy Spirit, who Jesus introduced as the Comforter will guide and be present throughout this process.
I attempt to focus on meeting the needs of the present, while honoring the life of the past. Introducing the hopeless to the Prince of Peace is my number one focus. Their response to Him, at that moment, is not a metric I choose to focus on. While it’s always wonderful to witness immediate response (which is extremely common), it’s good to remember that we’re planting incorruptible seeds.
Although the daily tasks of ministry always require prayerful preparation, nothing compares to “being ready” for the funeral. Attempting to find the perfect one-liners and witty poems isn’t the best investment of our time, here. These moments are made for pressing into the presence of God.
Remember Jacob? Sleeping with his head on a rock, he found the peace to rest even while being in a hard place. Hard places always precede High Places! While he rested, he dreamed. He saw a ladder reaching into heaven and angels ascending and descending. John 1:51 informs us that Jesus IS THE LADDER!
Taking a firm grip to our ladder (Jesus) and stepping up, climbing into His Presence, is the only guarantee that you’ll have anything with the power to heal. Bringing The Kingdom to the hurting is the one and ultimate goal of performing the ceremony that matters.
Find a place to rest. A moment to dream. Even in the hardest of places you can see what you’d never see, had you not taken the time to rest. When you can see what you hadn’t seen before, you can go where couldn’t go before. When you can go where you couldn’t go before, you can reach those you couldn’t reach before.
Tony Cooke – Broken Arrow, OK
I found all of the above answers encouraging and helpful. As I read the remarks, it made me appreciate the love and compassion these ministers have displayed over many decades, and the wisdom they have accumulated through their respective journeys.
More than one mentioned that we don’t necessarily know what an individual did in their final moments, and sometimes people made decisions the family doesn’t know about. I know that is not always the case, but I recall being asked to visit an older man who rarely attended church (he is the one that requested my visit). He was a very private individual, and he prayed willingly that day to receive Jesus as his Lord and Savior.
A few months later when I received a call from his widow telling me that he had passed, she expressed sorrow concerning his spiritual state (he had not lived for God during his life, nor had he shared with her about his decision and prayer a few months before). The widow was tremendously relieved when I told her of his open heart and his confession of faith.
I realize that not every case is like the one just mentioned, but we must keep in mind that we don’t know everything that happens in a person’s life, and as others have indicated, we must commit people who pass “to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).
It would be wrong to assume that everyone goes to heaven, or that everyone makes a last-second decision for Christ, but here is something I wrote in my book, Life After Death: Rediscovering Life After the Loss of a Loved One. I have also shared this on an occasion with surviving family members when I felt it was something they could receive:
People who don’t go to heaven have a strong desire for their living loved ones to accept God while they have the opportunity. The rich man (Luke 16) realized there were things his brothers could do to change their destiny so theirs would not be the same as his. This brings to mind a question that is often raised in pastoral ministry: People are often distraught when a loved one who died gave no evidence or indications of having accepted Jesus. Instead of assuming the worst, we must realize that we don’t necessarily know what a person did in his final moments or seconds of consciousness—this means there is hope! The thief on the cross placed his faith in Jesus shortly before his death, and Jesus accepted him and assured him that he would be with Him in Paradise.
When it comes to the funeral or the memorial service, there are important considerations that have been well addressed in the remarks above. It is important to keep in mind that the memorial service is really not for the deceased, but for the living. Therefore, we want to honor them and express God’s love to them.
In a service for a known believer, it is easy to intermingle elements of the gospel in with the eulogy—the personal remarks about the person. In other words, the pastor honors the person’s life (what he or she meant to others, their accomplishments, etc.) and is able to talk about how their faith impacted the overall course and events of that person’s life.
In a service for a person who was not known to be a believer, there will still be a eulogy and a message, but the two may not be able to be interwoven. In other words, I might have all of the eulogy and even remarks shared by others early in the service, and then have a definite break, perhaps by a song. Then, when I share the message, I make it about God and what he offers to the people present without necessarily connecting it to the life of the individual who passed away.
I was taught very early in ministry that if there is uncertainty, don’t try to preach a person into heaven or into hell. Honor the person’s life, comfort the bereaved, and share the love of God.