Sometimes people raise the question about where a Christian funeral or memorial service should occur. Should we hold the service in a church sanctuary, a funeral home chapel, or at the graveside? We need to say a word about funeral customs at this point. In different regions of the country, people observe diverse funeral customs. In some parts of the country, cremation is an accepted practice while in other places it is perceived as an indignity. How people remember the dead in a ritual way in Washington State may differ significantly from how one celebrates a memorial service in Alabama. In addition, the ethnicity of the deceased dictates how we carry out the custom of memorializing the dead. Sensitive pastors will help guide families in the manner in which the gathered community remembers their loved one.
I once officiated at the funeral of a man whose children lived far out of state. Although the father was a person of faith, the children were essentially unchurched. They had some curious ideas about his funeral. Finally, I explained to them that although they had valid ideas, perhaps appropriate where they lived; such a service would trouble people in our community. I did not tell them that their ideas were wrong, but I did say that such a service as they envisioned would emotionally bewilder those who also wanted to grieve their father. Often if pastors will help the family understand the consequences of their decisions, then most reasonable people will understand. Thus, any place is appropriate for a funeral service if 1) it meets the needs of a grieving family, and 2) it does not violate the local funeral customs of a community.
One would hardly think it necessary to mention that telling the truth is a cardinal virtue in any preaching, but most especially in funeral preaching. If the preacher goes out on a limb and says things that those who knew the deceased well know could never be true, that preacher forfeits her or his credibility. Clearly all persons are sinners and stand in the need of God's mercy and grace, but some folks may perhaps stand in more need than others. All people have some redeeming qualities and these should be shared within a loving memorial. However, for those people who were minimally faithful, the preacher's sustained focus on the gospel is always a prudent option. I once asked a wise pastor what to say at the funeral of a man who, shall we say, "needed improvement" in his ethical and family life. The sensible pastor told me, "Son you can never go wrong preaching Jesus." I have found this sage advice.
Thus, the preacher needs to be realistic in terms of the deceased's life. No fudging the truth in front of a crowd that, in all likelihood, knew the deceased better than the preacher. At the same time, the funeral sermon above all must end on a note of hope. We do not preach people into heaven or hell. Rather, we hand over the final judgment in such matters to God who judges both the living and the dead. Wherever the spirit of God is, then there is a place of hope.
A pastoral colleague once was the minister in a distinctly rural church in Red Oak, Texas. After two years he noticed that each time he preached a funeral, the same three older women were in attendance. In fact, his curiosity got the best of him when he noticed they attended a funeral of an elderly man, nearly one hundred years old, who had not lived in the community for some eighty years. So to satisfy his curiosity my friend asked the women, "Why do you three attend every funeral in the Red Oak funeral home?"
They replied: "We never hear preachers talk about hope except at funerals, and we are now old. We need hope every week, and this is why we come."
People need hope to live and the funeral sermon is an excellent time to help people experience the hope giving and grace filled word of the gospel. After all, it was Paul himself who wrote to his friends at Thessalonica, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). More than any other word we offer at the death of a loved one, we offer a declaration of God's ultimate hope divinely given in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
David N. Mosser is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Arlington, TX.