It happened again this week.
Someone with Good Shepherd (the church where I serve) connections stopped by the church to tell me about a family member who had died in another state and to shed a bit of light on the funeral that followed.
“The funeral was a disaster,” she said. “That guy (the pastor) didn’t seem to care about us. He only wanted us to know that we all were going to die too one day and that in the meantime we should become part of his church.”
I wish I could say that her report is unique, but it’s not. I hear the same story with alarming frequency: a funeral that could have brought comfort and hope instead led to guilt and frustration.
With that as a background, below are some ideas I hope settle deep into the marrow of fellow clergy. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive. Perhaps they don’t fit every situation. And I suspect I’ve blown a service or two in my 24 years of doing this. Yet for the most part Good Shepherd has a better-than-expected record of providing funeral services that do justice to the memory of the one who has died and bring honor to the name of God.
1. Talk about the person before the promise
Don’t talk about the glories of heaven before you talk about the person who is now there. Instead, establish rapport with the grieving community by articulating what made the deceased person unique. A funeral congregation is often one whose ear you have to earn—and you earn those ears in your descriptions of the deceased. If you never met the deceased person, don’t say that during the eulogy. Half the congregation—or more—will immediately tune you out. Do the research, ask the questions, take the notes, and then speak as if you know the person. Because in a sense, you do: you’ve learned about the individual from those who loved him or her the most.
2. Your goal should be expression
Your role is to stand and give voice to that which people in the room are feeling but can’t articulate amid the heaviness of grief. You can name the quirks of the deceased. Most people have a habits or traits that are inherently funny—and laughter at funerals is positively golden. You can list accomplishments and things the person loved. You can acknowledge that the life was not without challenges. My highest honor in a funeral is when someone tells me afterwards, “You described him perfectly.” “You understood her.”
3. Give them permission to grieve
Expression & permission work hand in hand. After giving voice to the memories of those who have gathered, you give them permission to grieve. Know this: grief is good. Jesus said as much, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” From my earliest funerals back in 1990 to the present day, people are always shocked and pleasantly surprised to hear that their grief and sadness is normal, healthy, and biblical. A funeral is literally the appointed time for a gathered community to grieve: “A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
4. Avoid cliches
It’s not a “homegoing.” It’s a funeral. God didn’t “need another angel,” because dead people don’t become living angels. And while the deceased may well be “in a better place,” chances are that the grieving family feels that better place would be sitting right next to them, still alive. And above all, don’t read—or allow someone else to read—a sentimental poem that begins with the line, “Don’t grieve for me.” It may sound sweet, but it’s contrary to both human nature and Scriptural revelation.
5. Please, no altar calls
Now don’t get me wrong. We love invitations at Good Shepherd. We see surprisingly large numbers of people come to faith at the close of our Sunday services. However, I believe that in the vast majority of cases, a funeral is not the appropriate venue for such a call to salvation. In that setting it both minimizes the life of the deceased and manipulates the emotions of those who are grieving. You will be far more effective if you give subtle yet unmistakable references to eternal life, to hope, and to the possibility of comfort in the midst of pain. That’s the heart of gospel proclamation: the truth that Jesus’ lordship invades every area of life, including how we navigate death.
6. Mention the current life of the deceased
I love to include this line I heard from another pastor: “[The deceased] is more alive now than they have ever been before.” Whether it is the trauma of a child’s death or the long-anticipated death of an elderly saint, people are blessed, moved, and touched by hearing those words near the close of a eulogy.
So please recognize and even celebrate the sacred privilege you have of making the church you serve not only a great place to live but a great place to die as well.