By Marshall Hayden
Those of us who serve in ministry with a church family are asked by members and the community to do several things. People seek counseling; and most of us refer more often than we accept. Groups are looking for a speaker; and we will accept the events we feel good about. Couples come asking us to perform a wedding. Some we accept. Several we decline.
But there is one request that, as a minister, I have never turned down. A funeral is an opportunity for meaningful service, and often a chance to open hearts to the good news of Christ. A surprising number of people who are now a part of the church encountered us first when they attended a funeral service.
Some funerals are difficult (the result of terrible accidents, suicides, children’s tragedies). Some are strange (the guests seem to be completely worldly). Some are tense (families have started to fight each other for the scraps). Some are very sad (people die without Christ and without hope). In just about every audience are some people who do not have a clue about faith.
It is a sensitive time and a serious time. But people listen. There is an opportunity to express the incomparable importance of faith in Christ, and our sympathy, gratitude, love, and hope (when faith has given reason for hope).
Not many hours after the death of a member or attendee of the church—or the death of a stranger whose family doesn’t know a minister, or a relative or friend of someone in the church—a call will come from one of the local funeral homes. “The family is here with me, and they have asked if you could be available to conduct a funeral service on Friday morning.” How do we respond?
Making Contact, Sharing the News
We contact a loved one as soon as possible to express support and concern. (I am writing this the morning following a 9:30 pm death that followed a long illness. A family friend called, and I was able to spend a couple of hours with the husband, praying, crying, and visiting with him and close friends.) Each situation will be somewhat unique, so we will do what we think best about making an unannounced visit or phone call.
If death occurs in a hospital, after a doctor has signed the appropriate forms, the personnel there will walk the family through the first steps to take. The funeral home is notified first. After the family members stay for a time with their deceased loved one, a representative of the church can offer to make any contacts that are needed. If there are not others to help, we are glad to go with them the next day to the funeral home to make the necessary arrangements.
We immediately notify those in charge of the church’s prayer tree about the death, and call them again when there is funeral information. And there always are some individuals whose support will be particularly meaningful that we contact as soon as possible.
Planning the Funeral (or Memorial Service)
If I have been asked to conduct the funeral, I call key family members and ask for a meeting with them so we can talk about:
1. The kind of service they wish to have.
2. Where the service will take place.
3. Others whom they might wish to be involved in the service (family members or friends with memories and expressions of respect; other ministers; and the possibility of opening the service for comments by anyone attending).
4. Any congregational or special music they might wish to have (often the minister of music and worship can be included in the visit).
5. Most significantly, I say, “Please tell me about your mother (father, friend, etc.).” Even if we knew the person very well, there are things that others have to say that will make the service particularly meaningful and comforting. Did this person have a favorite Scripture? Might there be a recently marked Scripture in the personal Bible?
6. And in this meeting, prayer is almost always enthusiastically welcomed.
The church office will order a flower arrangement to be sent to the funeral home; while it isn’t a large arrangement, this gesture is always appreciated.
We get an obituary from the newspaper or a clergy record from the funeral home. It provides some information about the one who has died, and lists other members of the family. One thing the officiating minister will often want to do is to mention family members by name when praying for God’s comfort and care. Even prayer can be a bit discordant when some in the inner circle of the family are not mentioned while others have been.
If at all possible, we visit the family during calling hours.
We encourage all of the available members of the church’s leadership team to attend calling hours or the funeral; and when a member of that team has a family member die, several us travel to wherever we must to be part of the services.
Conducting the Service
When it comes to the funeral/memorial service itself, it is very important to pay attention to the wishes of the family. Many times they have little to suggest, preferring to leave it completely in the minister’s hands. But often services are completely planned by the one who has died, especially when the person has been sick for a long period of time. And the funeral can be full of many meaningful pieces. Some people wish to have a very brief service.
It is important to remember that a service is about the one who has died, and about God. And it is for the family and friends who attend. It is painful if the minister gives any hint that “it’s about me.”
Sometimes I have compared the deceased to a biblical personality with similar characteristics. This not only focuses on the deceased, but also helps listeners appreciate the authenticity of Scripture.
On those occasions when the one who has died is completely unknown to me, I have found that a simple outline of “memory” (respect for this life and lessons learned from him/her), “sympathy” (the separation is real), and “honor” (for God, the Maker of Heaven and earth, and the only one who has the perfect answers)” can be used helpfully.
One of my most painful memories in ministry happened at a funeral service for a man in a neighboring county, part of a family that I did not know. I was not as careful as I should have been. It’s been more than 40 years ago now, and I still cringe every time I think about it. When using the man’s name, several times in the message, I inverted the two syllables each time I said it. On purpose, I have now forgotten the name; so I can’t give you the exact bumbling quotes.
Please be sure you are very, very clear about names.
Moving to the Graveside
If you are conducting the service and the graveside ceremony, you may either drive in the procession or ride with the funeral director. At the cemetery the minister should walk in front of the casket as the pallbearers carry it and then stand where the funeral director suggests.
The graveside service itself should be brief. Usually I read one or two short passages of Scripture, express a word of committal, and close with prayer.
After the Funeral
After the services, our church offers to serve member families and out-of-town guests a meal at the church building.
We have sought to develop a culture that will assure several contacts with the affected family members by a number of individuals for weeks following a death—from members of their Sunday school classes, ministry teams, or small groups.
Our grief ministry group gathers once a month. The leaders of that group contact family members shortly after a funeral and take them a copy of a helpful book. They also tell them when the group will be meeting and invite them to share in the next one, and whenever that fellowship can offer comfort and support.
At the end of our Sunday services we have a “family moment,” and if we know someone is there for the first time since a loved one’s death—for we know it is a lonely time—we recognize that they are back with the church family.
For several years I have kept a list of the deaths that have impacted the church family; and I phone (from wherever I am) the spouse/parent/child on the first anniversary of that loved one’s death.
Jesus will come back before some lives come to an end. But for all of the rest of us, death will precede his return. When we are in him, it will be a graduation and a celebration; but it will be a time of mixed emotions (and some very strong ones) for the family and friends who yet have some life to live.
The church, the body of Christ and the family of God, will want to do its very best to care for, comfort, and cheer those who are touched by that death.
Marshall Hayden served in ministry for more than 40 years, and as senior minister with Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church for 28 years, before retiring September 1. He is the son of former CHRISTIAN STANDARD editor Edwin Hayden and serves as chairman of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.