What Ought to Happen at a Funeral?

I’m curious, what do you think about funerals?  More specifically, what do you expect at the funeral of a Christian?

One thing for sure.  You never quite know what you might see at a funeral.  I did a funeral one evening for a man who had experienced a tragic, sudden death.  The family decided that the funeral would actually be a memorial service.  Unfortunately, the family was squabbling and making accusations toward one another.  For some reason, there was no music, no one else leading the funeral.  Just myself and the funeral home director.  That evening, the church building began to fill.  A police officer was keeping an eye on two of the families.  I could just feel the tension.  Finally, it appeared that most of the people were seated.  I was just about to go to the microphone when two family members came in (somehow connected to this man’s family).  They were some of the most vocal toward another side of the family.  The two family members were sisters, identical twins in their late 50s.  Both of them were wearing identical pantsuits.  They looked furious!  They walked slowly from the back of the auditorium, down the middle aisle.  I remember wondering if they were going to make a scene.  Finally, they reached the second row from the front where the rest of the family was sitting and they sat down as well.   You never know what is going to happen.

I have been to many, many funerals.  At this point in my life, I can say that I have even spoken at many, many funerals.  Sometimes these funerals take place in funeral homes.  Sometimes they are at church buildings.   Sometimes these funerals are for people who are Christians.  On other occasions these funerals are for people who did not embrace the Christian faith.

I am wondering what you think is important and appropriate for a minister to say at the funeral of a Christian. 

I have heard many ministers speak at funerals.  Some are very personal (regarding the deceased) and some are very impersonal.  Some seem to speak personally to the family (during the funeral) and others almost seem to ignore the family.  I have heard some ministers preach sermons in the funeral with no remarks regarding the deceased.  I have heard other ministers reflect on the deceased with only a passing reference to Jesus or Scripture.  Many speak of heaven at such funerals.

Some years ago, I decided that I would speak of the Cross/resurrection of Jesus in some fashion in every Christian funeral I preach.  I think that most people at funerals where I am speaking would say that I am "personal" in what I say regarding the deceased (especially if I know them well).  I try to be personal as I address the family as well.  However, at some point, I think it important that the Cross/resurrection be proclaimed in some fashion.

I’m curious.  What do YOU think is appropriate?  What have you observed in recent funerals? 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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15 thoughts on “What Ought to Happen at a Funeral?

  1. Jim, do you remember Willimon’s story of a funeral he and his wife attended?  He said the country preacher really let ‘em have it about preparing for death and judgment day.  On the way home Willimon was expressing to his wife his disapproval of the message, that it was inappropriate and insensitive.  She agreed, “but there was one problem; every word he said was true.”  I don’t like those kinds of funeral messages either, but I do agree that the message needs to include the gospel as well as be personal.  It’s sort of like you told me one time: much of our preaching is not to the people but for the people; that is, we are saying what they want said.  A believer wants his/her funeral to be an expression of his/her faith.
    By the way, I really hate funerals.  But since we have to do them, I appreciate this post and look forward to the comments about it.

  2. I dislike funerals so much that I don’t want one.  I would rather people tell me while I’m alive what I have meant to them if anything.  I know funerals are for those left behind, but by the same token tell people while they’re alive.  If they need to make a change then it’s not too late.  But back to your question of what’s appropriate…let me climb down off my soap box.  I’ve had 3 relatives that died that did not attend church; the preacher couldn’t say anything about them because he did not know them at all…that was awkward, I’m sure it was for the preacher too.  I remember in high school going to the funeral of a 16 year old girl who was killed by a drunk driver; the minister kept talking about how the family would "move on without her" and they would "eventually get over it".  I remember thinking in all my wisdom at 18 (!) that I felt like that was insensitive.  The best funerals (if there’s such a thing) are where family, friends and the minister can tell personal stories about the person that bring laughter and comfort to the family.  When everyone can talk about the influence that person had on their life.  The Stan Smiths, Liz Zeiglers, Harold Wilsons of the world.  You know that they have received their reward, and while we miss them, we are comforted by the fact that they lived their whole life striving for that very thing and now they’ve made it.  But send flowers to the living, and tell them and their family NOW how they’ve influenced your life. 

  3. Jim,
    It is so strange that you have this question/post on your site today.  There was a sudden loss of a coworker of Barry’s this week and his death has been our mind’s a lot the last few days as we are awaiting the details of the cause of his early passing.  As what I feel should be said at a funeral, I feel that the funeral is for memorializing the person and should do so by remembering them in a good way.  (You can even find something nice to say about someone that is not so nice, if you try hard enough.)  I do not feel that it is the person speaking’s place to "preach them into heaven" as it has been said many times.  Nor is it a time to bring all of those there to mourn to feel so horribly bad in thinking and knowing that that person will be spending eternity in hell.  As we all know, it is between the deceased and God where they will be spending eternity and not our place to judge, especially at their funeral.  I believe that their funeral should be a time of reflection of their life and of the good they did and of memories and stories to be told, of things people want to be left with thinking nice of that person …..not of the bad.  I can also say that as I have grown as a Christian, funerals have become easier for me to attend.  I use to be very sad at funerals, now I know that a funeral is a happy day and that I am to rejoice in the death of the deceased because they are now at home in heaven with the Lord.  Thanks so much for your wonderful questions….Leanne

  4. Jim, I also agree that the gospel should be a part of any Christian funeral. I’ve often thought of good friends, who do not know Christ, who might be at my funeral. I would want the message to include the truth of the gospel, and hopefully point them towards the cross. If I was good to any of these people at any time, it was not because of me, but because of Christ living in me.  I would want that message conveyed so that hopefully they could see that, and come to Christ. Regards, Mike

  5. Jim,
    Great question.  One that I’ve asked my self often.  I’ve done literally hundreds of funeral and have 2 more this week.  I’ve tried it all. 
    I think I’ve come to a conclusion that the best thing for me to do is comfort the family by talking about the deceased.  To share with them about their life and both its ups and downs.  That’s really why they’ve come. 
    This is not always easy to do when you don’t know the person.  Nor is it always possible when your doing a funeral for a person who has lived a bad life.  But I do my best to make the service a memorial. 
    What I don’t try and do is preach a sermon that converts everyone.  I don’t think this is the time to do this.  And, I have never seen anyone converted at a funeral.  This doesn’t mean this is not a time for outreach … just not a time to preach a "hell and fire" sermon.  

  6. Jim:
    Being both a preacher for 30 years and now a funeral director (the past 4-5 years), I have mixed thoughts on this subject. As a preacher, I would always try to celebrate the life of the deceased. Growing up in North Alabama, almost every funeral was more of an evangelistic sermon and often with little mention of the deceased. That really turned me off to trying to preach a sermon to people. I think that is an abuse of the occasion. I do, however, incorporate into my funeral sermons the hope of the resurrection and I bring in several passages of comfort and hope. Max Lucado once wrote in a book that when it comes to the context of death, people have the same question, “What does God have to say?” I’ve not found that to be true in my experience but I still want people to know what God has to say in terms of hope.

    As a funeral director, one of the toughest things to do is really look sad during a $10,000 funeral service! (Joke) I am often called up to “preach” a funeral for people I don’t know and people who are not interested in anything “Christian” and those are the most difficult. In the latter, I simply celebrate the life.

    Funerals and weddings are equally … well let’s just say I don’t like doing either of them as a preacher.

  7. I had to meet with a couple of families and didn’t get a chance to finish my earlier comment. Recently I was the funeral director for the funeral of a local gang banger. Hate to use that term, but that was the 20-year-old man’s life. At the graveside, with about 200 people gathered, his gang-buddies all flashed their gang signs and shouted out their gang’s name (which I never understood). Then 3 or 4 of the gangbangers read their rap poems … celebrating the deceased’s life as a gangster – warrior, as well as listing some of the crimes they committed. The whole group, including the heart-broken parents, all laughed at the crimes he’d committed. Very strange!!

  8. Darryl,I had forgotten about that Willimon story.Thanks for mentioned the importance of speaking "for" the people.  I do think that is important to remember.  Part of a funeral involves articulating what these people are already thinking. 

  9. Thanks Laura,These stories regarding a person’s life are important and woven together can communicate a part of "the story" of a person’s life.

  10. Mike,I do think that those who go to funerals of a Christian can be blessed in some way by being there.  Hearing the story of that person’s life can be inspiring especially if that person at the funeral saw that story being lived out in the person’s life.This daily witness that the funeral participants saw in the life of the person now deceased can be a powerful testimony to the power of Jesus.  In mentioning the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, I hope to give a person enough space and room to consider what he meant in that person’s life.

  11. Jim, great post and great set of questions.  Because Americans have become so transient, at many (most?) funerals, you have a hodge podge of people somehow connected to the deceased, but not necessarily to each other.  It’s common for the person presiding at a funeral to be speaking to strangers.  As a preacher, I always disliked that.  It feels disconnected, superficial.
    However, it IS important to get a sense of what should happen before, during, and after the funeral.  Funerals are often stressful, but they also represent a huge opportunity for the preacher to do good service in the name of Christ.  A couple of things I try to remember:
    1.  Like the funeral directors, I’m there because the family and close friends of the deceased are mostly out of their minds.  They need someone who has an idea of what to do, and who’s thinking clearly, to be there and guide the process.
    2.  A funeral is a huge rite of passage for a family.  The life of the deceased mattered so much to them.  Somehow or another, that should be acknowledged.  A funeral should publically establish the significance of the deceased.  If what was good and true about him/her is remembered and honored, then the family feels honored there in the presence of the group that has gathered.  I think that’s important.