by Larry W. Timm
When death occurs, a minister encounters a unique and sacred duty. The deceased is someone’s loved one and God’s valuable creation; there is sanctity in both. Death erases neither.
When asked to speak at a funeral service, our attitude will influence our preparation and proclamation. If we see a funeral as an interruption in our ministry instead of an expression of it, we will be poor stewards of this important opportunity. However, if we approach each funeral as a unique and sacred part of our calling, we can offer leadership and service as caring shepherds.
As a preaching minister and funeral director, I have had occasions to preach or hear hundreds of funeral messages. It is from these experiences that I offer the following encouragement and advice.
We can offer ministry without promoting ourselves; so be confident, yet humble.
In the face of grief, the God who conquered death has spoken. Our assurance that God’s Word is alive, even in the wake of death, can inspire confidence that, because God has spoken, we too have something to proclaim. We can minister out of strength and conviction.
Nevertheless, this stirring confidence is tempered by the fact that our confidence is because of Jesus and not because of us. We are mortals with an immortal message. We cling to the same eternal hope that we announce to the grieving.
People do not come to the funeral to hear us speak. Yet, as ambassadors, we are provided with a message of hope and comfort that grieving hearts need to hear. Our compassionate God pours out his healing words through a variety of channels, but the humbling fact remains that he has chosen to use our voices to express his heart.
Our calling is intentional. Our role is important. We can offer meaningful ministry.
We can speak about the deceased without sacrificing our message; so be personal, yet biblical.
I grow weary of the “one-size-fits-all” funeral messages that barely refer to the deceased by name, if at all.
God created each individual in his image and that gives us inherent dignity and value. We do not dishonor the Creator by speaking personally about his creation. The deceased was a unique individual, loved by God and by family, friends, and acquaintances who come to the funeral. It is significant that their loved one lived, and acknowledging that life is worth the effort. How do we do it?
We should make time to meet with the family. Read Scriptures of comfort to them. Ask questions about their loved one’s life, passions, and hobbies. Inquire about memberships in organizations or groups. Let the family tell if their loved one had any favorite hymns, songs, or Bible verses. Ask the family to suggest verses to include in the message, thus keeping Scripture in the forefront.
Listen as the family shares their favorite memories. Most families appreciate and need the opportunity to reflect on the life of their dearly departed. Assure them you want to honor their loved one and personalize the message in a brief and respectful manner.
Write down everything they share, then sit down later and prayerfully consider what to include in the message. This meeting can be a tremendous time of ministry. It provides the building blocks for the personalized funeral message and allows the family to verbalize their grief.
Nevertheless, don’t marginalize what is heavenly out of a sincere desire to personalize what is earthly. We are called to be preachers, not biographers. While it is appropriate for us to speak about the deceased, it is essential to speak about God’s comforting presence and power. We are compelled and privileged to speak of the Lord who has the power to soothe grief-stricken hearts. God’s Word is alive and can offer hope and comfort to those who mourn.
We needn’t choose between being personal and being biblical; with prayerful effort, we can be both.
We can acknowledge a life without endorsing its contents; so be gracious, yet honest.
As preachers, we often have the honor of speaking at the funeral of a Christian. We see beyond the grave, where hope is eternally realized! We grieve, but not like those who have no such hope. We do not speak of the deceased believer as sinless, for that is dishonest. Instead, we speak of the forgiveness of their sins in Christ, for that is the gospel!
However, unsaved people die too. How do we approach that funeral message?
You probably have wondered what to say about certain individuals at their funeral. You wonder whether to take the well-worn path that promises the eternal comforts of Heaven, or the more perilous path that proclaims the eternal fires of Hell. Which path will it be?
I believe even the most diligent “fruit inspectors” may not have all the facts. We must proceed carefully and prayerfully here. Talk of rewards in Heaven is quite appropriate when applicable, but talk of eternal punishment in Hell is seldom justifiable at a funeral service.
I am not suggesting we compromise scriptural integrity, but that we use merciful discernment. Under no circumstances should we whitewash sins with a wink and a nod when speaking about the life of an unsaved soul. Nonetheless, most families do not need to be reminded of their loved one’s sins and shortcomings.
If a person’s bad reputation is well known, acting as if it did not exist can dilute, even destroy, the credibility of our message. We must keep all these things in view when we prepare our remarks. Our goal is not to condone sin, but to comfort the grieving. It may take hard work and sensitivity to find and frame suitable comments, but kindness and mercy should lead us to make the effort. If we believe every life created by God has value, then our toil is not in vain. Therefore, with guidance from the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures, we can acknowledge a life without endorsing its contents.
The certainty of death is one thing we all share in common.
Its shadow can seem cold and dark. However, light shines brightest in the times that seem the darkest. In our funeral message, let us hold the torch for those walking in the shadow of death.
We cannot change the history or destiny of the deceased, but we can offer a comforting touch to those who grieve. May we never take for granted the power of the spoken word or our supreme honor to speak the written Word. Let us refuse to surrender the funeral message to a mere formality. Instead, may we embrace it as a sheer ministry.
Larry Timm is preaching minister with Peabody (Kansas) Bible Church and a licensed funeral director in the state of Kansas.