Death At A Funeral
I’ve been to quite a few funerals in my lifetime, as I am sure many of you have as well. Some of them were tragic and heart-wrenching, while others were mostly celebratory.
Often times the feel or tone of a funeral service is determined or at least significantly influenced by the deceased (i.e., what type of life he or she lived) or situations surrounding the deceased (i.e., family feuds, etc.). But then there are other times when it is impacted by those who are participating in the service, or, as some would say, those who are on program.
How we carry out our part in the service can either help console the family or make it feel like death at a funeral to them. So what follows is just a few concise pointers to help us all do better at fulfilling the roles that we may be assigned to at a funeral service, so that the family (and those in attendance) will experience comfort from our participation.
*Note: Funeral services can differ depending on a person’s culture, city, church denomination, etc. I am primarily writing from my perspective and experience as an African-American who lives in the South, namely Texas, and who has attended and is familiar with funerals of the traditional Black Baptist persuasion.*
Pastors/Preachers: Pick a text that is appropriate for the occasion. I know that sounds elementary, but you’d be surprised (maybe not) to know that some of us actually fail to do this. If you don’t know what to read, then ask a seasoned pastor/preacher, or go and purchase a copy of a Minister’s Manuals for Funerals, Weddings, etc. And when you stand to read the Scripture, read the Scripture! And then sit down! Too many times we take liberties to expound on the Scripture text when we have only been asked to read it. This is not the time for us to elaborate, cross reference, parse or define Greek or Hebrew words, “tune-up,” or whatever. Just read and then take your seat.
Oh boy, where to begin? 🙂
- It is always safe to pray to God on behalf of the family and friends in their time of loss. If you are not soundly familiar with the deceased, it is best not to pray about his or her life. Why? Because you might say something that is inaccurate. And, trust me, the family is listening.
- Keep your prayer focused on Jesus and not the Devil.
- Don’t “preach-pray.” If at any point you and I start talking to the people sitting in the seats/pews in our prayers, we have just ceased to pray.
- Don’t pray to the deceased. “Bro. So-and-So, we know you can hear us. We just want to say thank you for sharing your life with us.” “Sis. Such-and-Such, tell Momma hello for us.” Prayer is always to be directed to God.
- Use “we” more than “I” in your prayers. You’ve asked people to pray with you, so be sure to include them in it. “Father, we thank you for the life of ______________.” “We pray for this family today, that You would comfort them in this time of bereavement.”
- Please try not to make the prayer about you and the time when you lost your loved one. “Father, I just come to pray for this family. Lord, I remember when I lost my dad and how You were there for me; those times when I cried myself to sleep; when I didn’t know how I was going to make it through. Father, You know I loved my dad. He was a good man. And, although it has been a few years since his passing, I still miss him today.” I am not trying to be hard-nosed here, but the truth is the family is there to remember, celebrate, and lay to rest their loved one, not yours or mine.
Song or Selection
To the Singers: As my brother in Christ, H.B. Charles, Jr., said in this blog post, “Please, Just Sing!”
- No grandstanding.
- No playing into the “hype.”
- No advertisement of your new project.
- No walking into the crowd, hugging the family while singing, leaning on the casket, or singing to the deceased body (some of this might sound fictitious or facetious, but it’s not).
- If you have been asked to sing one, specific selection, stick to that. And don’t pull the “God placed this in my spirit” card and sing a different OR another song.
- No extended exhortations before, during, or after the song.
- Pray, grab the mic, worship God and comfort the family through song, and then, as I said in the segment on Scripture Reading, take your seat.
Remarks or Expressions
If the family has afforded the opportunity to have remarks or expressions, please don’t abuse or misuse it by:
- Going over the allotted time (usually 2 minutes).
- Airing fairly private struggles of the deceased or dysfunction in the family.
- Mislabeling your relationship to the deceased as greater than it was.
- Confronting someone in attendance.
- Speaking negatively about the deceased or someone related or connected to him or her. The old adage applies here: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all…especially at a funeral.
- Chiding the family for grieving or crying.
Also, if the officiating minister happens to cut off the remarks before your turn, please be respectful and go back to your seat. There will be plenty of time and opportunity afterwards to share your expressions with others. Remember, it’s not about you.
I am aware that with some funerals the eulogy is separate from the message or sermon. However, in my context, the eulogy and message/sermon is usually combined.
- Preach the Word! Whether you are preaching on a text or taking a more topical approach, make sure you expound on the Scriptures. God comforts, confronts, convicts, changes, and converts us through the Holy Spirit-inspired Word and Gospel.
- Recognize that you may have persons who are non-Christians in the audience, so explain theological terms, if you use any of them, and try not to speak “churchanese.”
- Take a moment or moments throughout your message to address the family directly. Yes there are others in attendance, but the family can really benefit from hearing you speak the Word or speak words of comfort to them specifically.
- Keep it brief. A good benchmark would be anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. This of course may vary depending on the context. I remember attending one funeral where the preacher sang for 5 minutes, preached for about 40 minutes, and then sang for another 5 to 7 minutes at the end. One of the family members jumped up and screamed, “Let her go!” (speaking of his deceased loved one and his desire for the preacher to stop preaching and singing so that she can be laid to rest and they could move forward with the grieving process). Now I don’t agree with his response, but I understood the point he was trying to make: keep it brief, preacher.
In conclusion, remember, we have been appointed or afforded opportunities by the family to participate in the funeral service of their loved one, so let’s make every effort to do all we can to serve and be a source of comfort to them and not one of grief.
They are already dealing with one death. Let’s not take them through another “death” at a funeral by being insensitive, selfish, or careless.