A funeral is one of the most difficult things anyone may ever have to do. Even as “professionals,” it is often difficult to know what to do or what to say. Often we may not even know the deceased that well. They may have been a family member of a parishioner, or they may have attended our church at times, even regularly, but still they were not that well known by others. Young pastors often feel very inadequate when officiating their first funerals. Even after having served in such a capacity for years, I cannot say that I am ever completely comfortable and at ease with funerals, but today I want to address three specific steps that help when preparing and conducting a funeral sermon.
Acknowledge the mourning and loss
Funerals are obviously painful on many levels. To say that “All things work together for the good” or “they’re in a better place”, which may be true, does not make things any better or easier in the moment. People’s hearts may just simply be crushed, or they may have unresolved issues, or guilt, because of their relationship with the deceased. We must be able to enter with them into this place of pain and suffering with empathy, actively listening, sharing wellchosen words with compassion.
During the funeral, we must acknowledge the broken hearted pain of the bereaved, and sometimes, even anger. It may be that the best we can do is to acknowledge that our world is broken, and that this is not the way a perfect world is suppose to be. Having expressed mourning and loss, then it may well be appropriate to say that we do look for a better world to come, or that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead, that we look forward to the time when God will make all things brand new, and that one day we hope to be reunited with the ones we love, but only after having fully acknowledged the loss first.
Celebrate the life, and celebrating the good
Most of the time it is possible to find something to celebrate about the life of the deceased, to remember them well in some way. I remember my grandfather’s funeral. The pastor who conducted it took the opportunity to “preach the gospel message”. While this is right in and of itself, the minister did so, but he completely neglected to acknowledge any contribution my grandfather had given to our family or the world. In other words, he said nothing that needed to be said, or should have been said, in remembering my grandfather well. The fact that he was a hardworking man his entire life, that he made up songs especially for each grandchild and sang to them as he bounced them on his knee, his sense of humor, or ability to fix anything; nothing of this type was mentioned. Unfortunately, it went unsaid.
In order to avoid this tragedy at a funeral, I suggest talking with family and friends before the service and gathering some information; for example, their favorite story or remembrance of the one they’ve lost. Often taking this opportunity can break the depths of grief momentarily as well, with a smile, even a laugh. A good memory of their loved one gives a brief respite during this time of pain. It also makes your job a little easier in doing the funeral. Celebrating the life conveys that we genuinely care enough to get to know them a little better.
Help the family by Giving their loved one back to God.
A funeral is a process. It is the first step in moving forward. Though those who grieve will experience several waves of mourning and loss over the next months and even years, givingt heir loved one back to God is the very first difficult step in the process. By this time we have helped the family in expressing their loss and pain, and we have also helped them to remember some of the goodness and qualities of their loved one (something they’ll need to do often as they begin to heal.) Now we help them to end this first chapter of mourning and recovery by helping them to give their loved one back to God at the end of the funeral. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust” may be difficult enough, but prayer and words assist us in giving back to God that which He has graciously loaned to us for a time and season.
Into thy hands, O Lord, we commend thy servant Name†, our dear brother†, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Savior, beseeching thee that he†may be precious in thy sight. Wash him†, we pray thee, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb that was slain to take away the sins of the world; that, whatsoever defilements he†may have contracted in the midst of this earthly life being purged and done away, he†may be presented pure and without spot before thee, through the merits of Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord. Amen
This prayer, and others in the Book of Common Prayer, speak what needs to be said in order to move on and to move forward into the next stages of mourning and healing. When we cannot find the words then we must do the best we can, and sometimes it is simply a prayer that somehow puts into words our act of giving our loved one back to God. The family can then begin their journey forward.
Time, a lot of it, does indeed eventually begin to heal all wounds. Grief eventually can give way to a fond remembrance and a quiet knowledge that though we are separated from our loved ones by this thin veil of death, and though we will always carry those scars with us, in time healing will come. By acknowledging the pain and loss, celebrating the life that was lived, and giving the loved one back to God, we, as ministers, can lead people through these first three steps and can assist them with on this journey.
Father Dale Hall began ministry in 1987 at Calvary Baptist Church, in Rome, Georgia, and is an Anglican priest serving at The Mission, in Chattanooga, where he lives with his wife Kimberly. They have two sons and a daughter in law.