In the last three weeks I have officiated three funerals. I believe there is such a thing as a good funeral. A good funeral should: 1. honor the person who died and 2. be a worship service to God.
There are some basic do's and don'ts for a pastor when preparing and officiating a funeral. Here are a few that I have learned over the years.
Visit the family before the service. There are three things you want to accomplish by doing this.
1. Be a comforting presence - as the pastor you represent God to this family. There's probably more things to avoid saying than there are things you should say (scroll down for some examples what not to say in the Don't section).
2. Get to know the loved one who passed - ask about funny stories, favorite memories, what kind of father/mother/brother/sister/son/daughter/friend were they, what did they love, what did they hate, did they have any hobbies, did they have any favorite bible verses, hymns, songs, bands? All these things make preparing the eulogy so much easier and helps you honor his/her memory. Take good notes during this time!
3. Start planning the service - Ask the family about songs, scriptures and people they may want to ask to share about the person's life. Ask them about former pastors that may want to come and share memories.
Offer glib cliches that are well intended yet highly unhelpful in the midst of grief. This is the time when if you don't know what to say, it's better to say nothing. Just let them know you care about them and are there for them.
Some cliches to avoid:
- Don't worry they are in a better place
- You are so fortunate to have other children
- God must have wanted another flower for his garden/angel for his heaven
- Death is a part of life
- You shouldn't grieve like an unbeliever
- It's great that your mom/dad died before you did
For the service and eulogy...even if you didn't know the person, pretend you did.
- Be honest about how you met and what you knew and didn't know about the person, but don't blatantly share that you didn't know them well...you lose some credibility if you do that.
- If you took good notes when visiting the family they will assume you knew the person well by what you share.
Talk too much about what heaven is like...either when visting the family or in the eulogy...stick to what we do know from the Bible.
- We know that even though the loved one was a good person, their goodness does not get them into heaven, forgiveness found in Jesus Christ does.
- We know that Christians are given new, imperishable, resurrected bodies...this is really good to talk about in contrast to any illnesses/infirmities/difficult struggles the person may had...they are free from those now!
- We know that at some point God is going to make all things new. Talking about the new heavens and new earth are much more biblically sound than all the associations that come with talking about just "heaven."
- We know that God promises to comfort those who mourn.
Use the eulogy to preach a person into or out of heaven or hell.
- Lets face it, it's easier to do a service and eulogy for someone we know professed faith in Jesus Christ, however, if we didn't know their faith, it's not our place to play judge.
- In the instance of someone who the family thinks was not a believer, I lean on the truth that God has more grace than we give him credit for and we never know whether or not a person gave their lives to Christ at the last second...even if just in their own minds.
- Either way, a good eulogy should be mostly about the persons life not on where they ended up.
Give the family and friends permission to grieve.
- Saying something like "grief is normal and necessary and it's by going through grief that we can find healing" can give families assurance that they aren't alone and that their emotions are normal.
- We live in a culture that is uncomfortable with tears. People may be slow to tell stories about the person who passed to the family for fear that they will cause the person to cry. Telling those stories is a good thing. Sharing the memories is an essential part of honoring the person and bringing healing to the family.
Don't be scared to share appropriate humorous stories and memories of the loved one.
- It's okay for people to laugh about a funny story or memory during the eulogy. The family and those gathered will appreciate it.
- Avoid sharing a story if the family specifically asked you not to share it.
- If it's something that could paint the person negatively, try to spin it with humor. If it was true of the person people will know and laugh with you if you laugh. For example, if a person has a lot of quips and idiosyncrosies you can share how unique they were. I once shared about a person that had a "quiet stubbornness" and talked about how that was both a great strength (she had convictions) and at times a weakness (wasn't always willing to give into others suggestions).
- One time I visited a lady and she was asleep. I sat there a minute to see if she would wake up and apparently she woke up and I was asleep. At her funeral eulogy I shared the story and said that she was the only person in the church besides my wife that could say she had slept with the preacher. People laughed. I had gotten permission from the family to tell that first.
Bring an item that represents the person if you can find something appropriate and relevant.
- I have:
1. brought and shown and talked about a persons favorite candy
2. brought and shown and talked about a rock for someone who loved rocks
3. brouth a pepsi for someone who loved pepsi
4. brought and shown and talked about a cookie for someone who loved cookies
5. worn gardening gloves for someone who loved to garden
6. seen a pastor wear overalls under his coat and taken off the coat as a surprise to honor the one who passed
7. seen someone bring golf clubs and swung one for someone who loved golf
- If there was something they loved using it as a prop is a great way to begin a eulogy.
Find a scripture for the eulogy that fits the person well. For a eulogy it's okay to take some appropriate creative licensing with scripture. You don't want to take the verses out of context but at the same time you don't have to teach the scripture either. I usually keept the background info very basic and simple to speed up the movement into how the verses fit the persons life.
- Today I used Matthew 25:19-23 to talk about man who had went on over 26 mission trips. He was a man willing and glad to serve the kingdom of God. I'm sure he heard God say those words "well done good and faithful servant."
- 2 Timothy 4:6-8 is a good one for someone who is older, had a "good" death and had a strong faith. It's easy to think of ways that the person either "fought the good fight" or "kept the faith." You can say "And now they have finished the race of life well and are experiencing the eternal joy of their salvation" or something along those lines.
- Joshua 1:5-9 is excellent for someone who had strength and courage in the midst of difficult times.
- I have used Numbers 6:22-27 (focusing on verse 27) for a man who had "put his name" on his family. In so many ways his legacy was known through his family.
These are just a few Do's and Dont's, I'm sure there's others I'm not thinking of. If you think of anymore please share them in the comments.