It looks like I will be doing my first funeral as a pastor in the very near future. I’d love to hear from some seasoned pastors about what they’ve learned from their experiences in conducting funerals? How can I most effectively minister to the family and those in attendance? Are there some do’s and don’ts I should be aware of in conducting funerals? I’d also be interested in hearing the experiences of pastors who’ve had to do “difficult” funerals. Thanks for the tips and advice.
Story #1: Certainties
When the great Christian and scientist, Sir Michael Faraday, was dying, some journalists questioned him as to his speculations about life after death. “Speculations!” he said, “I know nothing about speculations. I’m resting on certainties. ‘I know that my redeemer liveth, and because He lives, I shall live also.'”
Story #2: Arrived
There are Christians from a certain tribe in Africa who never say of their dead “who die in the Lord” that “they have departed.” Instead, speaking as it were from the vantage point of the gloryworld, they triumphantly and joyously say, “they have arrived.”
Story #3: The Revised Edition
When Benjamin Franklin was about to die, he asked that a picture of Christ on the cross should be so placed in his bedroom that he could look, as he said, “upon the form of the Silent Sufferer.” He wrote in advance the epitaph to be on his gravestone: “The body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer, like the cover of an old book, it’s contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here…Yet the Work itself shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the Author.”
Story #4: In My Father’s House
It is said that when one of his church members was dying, John Watson, the Scottish preacher of Edinburgh, would kneel down and whisper in the person’s ear: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Then, with a contented sigh, the person would “slip away” – entirely unafraid.
Story #5: Dwight Moody’s Homegoing
Dwight L. Moody said, “Someday you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody of Northfield is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone higher, that is all — out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal, a body that sin cannot touch, that sin cannot taint, a body fashioned into His glorious body. I was born in the flesh in 1837; I was born of the Spirit in 1856. That which is born of the flesh may die; that which is born of the Spirit will live forever.”
A few hours before entering the ‘Homeland,’ Dwight L. Moody caught a glimpse of the glory awaiting him. Awakening from sleep, he said “Earth recedes. Heaven opens before me. If this is death, it is sweet! There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.” His son was standing by his bedside and said, “No, no, father, you are dreaming.” “No,” said Mr. Moody, “I am not dreaming. I have been within the gates. I have seen the children’s faces.” A short time elapsed…and he spoke again, “This is my triumph; this is my coronation day! It is glorious!”
Story #6: Reville
Winston Churchill had planned his funeral, which took place in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. He included many of the great hymns of the church, and used the eloquent Anglican liturgy. At his direction, a bugler positioned high in the dome of Saint Paul’s, intoned, after the benediction, the sound of “Taps,” the universal signal that says the day is over. But then came the most dramatic turn: As Churchill instructed, as soon as “Taps” was finished, another bugler, placed on the other side of the great dome, played the notes of “Reville” – “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning.” That was Churchill’s testimony that at the end of history, the last note will not be “Taps,” it will be “Reville.” The worst things are never the last thing.
Story #7: Both Sides of the River
The story is told of old Bishop Warren Chandler, after whom the school of theology at Emory University was named. As he lay on his death bed, a friend inquired as to whether or not he was afraid. “Please tell me frankly,” he said, “do you fear crossing over the river of death?” “Why,” replied Chandler, ” I belong to a father who owns the land on both sides of the river.”
Story #8: Waiting
There is a woman who is buried under a 150-year-old live oak trees in the
cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana. In accordance with this woman’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: “Waiting.”
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew
Story #9: The Fork
There was a woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her things in order, she contacted her pastor and had him come to her house to discus certain aspects of her final wishes. She told him the songs she wanted sung at her funeral, the scriptures she wanted read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. The woman also requested to be buried with her favorite Bible. Everything seemed in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when the woman suddenly remembered something very important to her.
“There’s one thing more,” she said excitedly. “What’s that?” came the pastor’s reply. “This is very important,” the woman continued. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.” The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say. That surprises you, doesn’t it?” the woman asked. “Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled by the request,” said the pastor.
The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and pot-luck dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, “Keep your fork.” It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming, like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful, and with substance! So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder, “What’s with the fork?” Then I want you to tell them: “Keep your fork. The best is yet to come.”
The pastor’s eyes welled up with tears as he hugged the woman goodbye. He knew this would be one of the last times he would see her before her death. But he also knew that the woman had a better grasp of heaven than he did. She knew that something better was coming.
At the funeral, people were walking by the woman’s casket and they saw the pretty dress she was wearing, her favorite Bible, and the fork in her right hand. Over and over the pastor heard the question, “What’s with the fork?” And over and over he smiled. During the message, the pastor told the people of the conversation he had with the woman shortly before she died, and explained the meaning of the fork. The pastor told the people he could not stop thinking about the fork and told them that they probably would not be able to either. He was right. So the next time you find yourself reaching for the fork, remind yourself that the best is yet to come.
Story #10: It’s Day Here
Leighton Ford is an evangelist, who, for many years worked as an associate to Billy Graham. His son, Sandy, died an untimely death, and in spite of his strong faith, Leighton struggled with that loss.
Even though he fully understood that he could not literally communicate with his departed son, Leighton kept a journal in which he wrote imaginary “conversations” with his son; it was his way of expressing things that were on the inside of him and bringing proper closure to the relationship.
In one of these imaginary conversations, Leighton wrote:
“Sandy, I sure do miss you. I think about you more now than I did when you were here on earth.”
“I know you do dad, and I hear those thoughts”
“I guess I’m just afraid that as our time goes on here, that I’ll lose the sense of nearness we once had.”
“But why?” Sandy responded, “It’s just like one big long day here, dad, and besides that, you’re not moving away from me, you’re moving toward me. And the wall between us is so thin, you would laugh if you could see it.”
“Thanks son, it’s getting late, I’d better get to bed. Enjoy the stars.”
“It’s day here dad, enjoy the light.”
Story #11: The Waterbug Story (Great to help children…)
Down below the surface of a quiet pond lived a little colony of waterbugs. They were a happy colony, living far away from the sun. For many months they were very busy, scurrying over the soft mud on the bottom of the pond. They did notice that every once in a while one of their colony seemed to lose interest in going about with its friends. Clinging to the stem of a pond lily, it gradually moved out of sight and was seen no more.
“Look!” said one of the water bugs to another, “one of our colony is climbing up the lily stalk. Where do you think she’s going?” Up, up, up it slowly went… Even as they watched, the water bug disappeared from sight. Its friends waited and waited but it didn’t return…
“That’s funny!” said one water bug to another…
“Wasn’t she happy here?” asked a second…
“Where do you suppose she went?” wondered a third…
No one had an answer. They were greatly puzzled.
Finally one of the water bugs gathered its friends together. “I have an idea. The next one of us who climbs up the lily stalk must promise to come back and tell us where he or she went and why.” “We promise” they said solemnly.
One spring day not long after the very water bug who had suggested the plan found himself climbing up the lily stalk. Up, up, up he went. Before he knew what was happening, he had broken through the surface of the water and fallen into the broad and free lily pad above.
When he awoke, he looked about with surprise. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
A startling change had come over his old body. His movement revealed four silver wings and a long tail.
Even as he struggled, he felt an impulse to move his wings… The warmth of the sun soon dried the moisture from his new body. He moved his wings again and suddenly found himself above the water.
He had become a dragonfly. Swooping and dipping in great curves, he flew through the air. He felt exhilarated in the new atmosphere.
By and by the new dragonfly landed happily on a lily pad to rest. Then it was that he chanced to look below to the bottom of the pond. Why, he was right above his old friends, the water bugs! There they were scurrying around, just as he had been doing some time before.
Then the dragonfly remembered the promise.
Without thinking, the dragonfly darted down.
Suddenly he hit the surface of the water and bounced away. Now that he was a dragonfly, he could no longer go into the water…
“I can’t return!” he said in dismay.
“At least I tried. But I can’t keep my promise.
Even if I could go back, not one of the water bugs would know me in my new body.
I guess I’ll just have to wait until they become dragonflies too.
Then they’ll understand what has happened to me, and where I went.”
And the dragonfly winged off happily into its wonderful new world of sun and air…
DO work with the family and the funeral home director in planning the funeral service. If you know the family is challenged financially, let them know they don’t need to prove their love for the deceased by over-spending on the funeral.
DO inquire of the family regarding their desires for the service itself and seek to accommodate accordingly. It is important to be aware of the musical selections made by the family.
DO try to visit with a variety of family members before preparing the service. Each will have a different perspective of the deceased to share with you. It can also be helpful to invite family members to write a personal note about the person. Some of these comments can then be included in your remarks.
DO check on the correct pronunciation of all names to be read from the obituary (clergy record).
DO arrive early for the funeral. Make sure all participants in the service are present and aware of their responsibilities. Provide each participant, including the funeral home representative, with an “order of service.” Make sure all parties clearly understand the order of events and the logistics of the service, including the dismissal.
DO make the service personal. In addition to sharing God’s Word, reflect positively, genuinely, and realistically about the deceased.
DO endeavor to add a light moment somewhere in the service if appropriate. It is sometimes helpful to share a warm, funny memory about the deceased, something that will bring a smile and a warm remembrance to the family and friends. This can help break the tension, create a more rounded picture of the deceased, and let people know that it’s OK to smile and laugh again.
DO validate feelings of loss. Let people know it’s all right to cry and feel sad. A significant loss has taken place, and such feelings are normal and natural. In the midst of sorrow, we have the Comforter and access to supernatural grace and hope. Both elements (sorrow and comfort) are real. This is why we “sorrow not…as others which have no hope.”
DO speak personally to the family during the service, but make sure you don’t leave anyone out if you do so. For example, talking about the deceased’s relationship with one child while ignoring another child can cause hurt feelings. Be consistent.
DO let those attending the funeral know that their love and support is very appreciated by the family. Also, encourage them to remember to support the family in the months to come.
DO have the church provide a meal for the family at the church or at their home after the funeral. The healing process for the family is facilitated when they have such an opportunity to fellowship and reminisce.
DO follow up on the family periodically after the funeral.
DON’T preach long at a funeral. Share the Word, but keep your comments short and sweet. People have come to pay their respects to the deceased and to show their support for the family, not to hear a lengthy sermon. While there may be some variation depending on cultural expectations, 45 minutes is typically a good length of time for a funeral service (the church or chapel portion).
DON’T preach a person into heaven or hell if there are questions about their spiritual condition. Simply commit them to a merciful and just God and minister to those present.
DON’T convey expectations that inhibit the family from experiencing or expressing their sorrow. They shouldn’t feel pressure to project “victory.” On the other hand, don’t play on the emotions of people in an attempt to make the service a “tear-jerker.”
DON’T use worn-out clichés that offer little comfort and may even be unscriptural. For example, saying, “God took John to a better place” implies that God is responsible for the death of their loved one. It is better to say that God “received” John and “welcomed him home” when his life on earth ended.
DON’T say to the bereaved, “I know how you feel.” Even if you experienced a similar loss, it is important to remember that different people experience grief differently. Every person is unique, and that uniqueness should be respected.
DON’T be opportunistic in sharing the gospel at funerals. This is not to say that the gospel should not be shared or that people cannot be invited to receive Jesus, but we it must be remembered that people attending funerals are often from varied backgrounds and are at different levels of spiritual receptiveness. If guests at the funeral feel like the main purpose of the funeral was to convert or proselyte them, they may leave feeling betrayed and exploited. It is recommended that the gospel be presented positively and in good taste, but not in a “hard-sell” type of way. Remember that Proverbs 25:16 indicates that a little honey is good, but too much will have an adverse affect.
A Final Thought
Though you don’t want to over-use quotes, stories, or illustrations, they can be very effective when used properly. Here are a few to consider…
When Benjamin Franklin was about to die, he asked that a picture of Christ on the cross should be so placed in his bedroom that he could look, as he said, “upon the form of the silent sufferer.” He wrote in advance the epitaph to be on his gravestone: “The body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer, like the cover of an old book, it’s contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here…yet the work itself shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the Author.”
John Pawson said, “I know I am dying, but my deathbed is a bed of roses. I have no thorns planted upon my dying pillow. Heaven is already begun.”
Dwight L. Moody said, “Someday you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody of Northfield is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone higher, that is all—out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal, a body that sin cannot touch, that sin cannot taint, a body fashioned into His glorious body. I was born in the flesh in 1837; I was born of the Spirit in 1856. That which is born of the flesh may die; that which is born of the Spirit will live forever.”
A few hours before entering the Homeland, Dwight L. Moody caught a glimpse of the glory awaiting him. Awakening from sleep, he said “Earth recedes. Heaven opens before me. If this is death, it is sweet! There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.” His son was standing by his bedside and said, “No, no, father, you are dreaming.” “No,” said Mr. Moody, “I am not dreaming. I have been within the gates. I have seen the children’s faces.” A short time elapsed… and he spoke again, “This is my triumph; this is my coronation day! It is glorious!”
When the great Christian and scientist, Sir Michael Faraday, was dying, some journalists asked of his speculations for life after death. “Speculations!” he said, “I know nothing of speculations. I’m resting on certainties. I know that my redeemer liveth. and because He lives, I shall live also!”
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