Tens of Thousands of times each year Christian funerals are conducted. Many of these are officiated by well-meaning but less than well-prepared clergymen who have to add yet another activity to an already burgeoning schedule. The result is frequently a funeral message that quotes stock phrases intended for comfort and understanding, taken from the published funeral message and adapted to the immediate situation. The effect becomes cold and little is accomplished which was desired.
Why do we have funerals in the first place? To evangelize the survivors? Whenever the Word of God is given, the effect can be conviction for the lost but this is not our primary goal. Christ, our best model, did not evangelize at funerals or weddings.
Are funerals held to teach? Again, sharing God’s Word may have a teaching effect whenever it is done, but the primary goal is not to present a lesson in Bible history or doctrine.
Are funerals held so the speaker can introduce some innovative application of the Christian ethic? Clearly not. How about hearing an oration from some learned theologian? No.
What then? What, indeed, unless to bring the family and friends to face a reality which they are struggling to accept. The reality is change. Lives will be irrevocably different from now on. A presence is missing. There is incredulity, anger, fear, guilt, and much hurt. For a minister of Christ to ignore these very human reactions and not to address them at the funeral is to fail to contribute to the process of adjustment, of healing.
Funeral messages need not be difficult to prepare. All the necessary ingredients are already known. People need to be allowed to grieve, they need to accept the reality of the death; they need to know that the empty place in the home will never be filled exactly as they have known it; they need to know what to expect of their emotional changes over the next few months; they need to spend time remembering good and positive things about the deceased.
The funeral starts the healing process. Up until that time, a matter of two or three days in most cases, the survivors have been in shock and unable to deal with reality. At the funeral they see the remains of the deceased in the presence of others who have come to share in the final ceremony. This locks the reality of the death squarely in place. It is useful for the minister to note this, to say that the person is dead and we shall miss him/her. It is not harsh or cruel to do so. It helps the family to begin thinking about adjustments, about getting over the pain.
Scripture readings which seem to have the best reception and are the most meaningful are those that are warm gentle and familiar to the hearers. If they can say them along with the reader, the listeners seem to find much comfort. The twenty-third Psalm, of course, will never grow old.
Poetry, too, has a gentle touch during a time of grief. The words are often so carefully chosen that they speak to most anyone in the time of hurt. Robert Richardson’s brief poem “Good Night” is prayer-like and represents the tenderness with which one says good-bye to the presence of another.
There is another good purpose for the Christian funeral: to memoralize the deceased. This is well done if the family and friends are led in a time of remembering. Chances are each person present will remember the departed one in a way different from all the others. That’s because the precious personal moments have been different for each.
The minister can give a wonderful gift by suggesting that for a moment everyone recall that special time when they were alone with the person being graced. Remember the occasion, the conversation, the good feelings. Then have all who are related to the deceased to recall the warm, good experiences at family get-togethers: Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays. Remember how the laughter, the decoration, the blessing for the meal while everyone held hands around the table, the squeal of happy children, the smell of cooking food, the quiet time at the end of the day–all are tied with the deceased. He/she will be missed, but the memories can help fill a void.
To memoralize is to remember. What better place to start than at the funeral while loving friends and close family are present to share? What better role for the minister than to be memorial leader for a few brief minutes? The rewards are rich for all.
Here is one outline of the minister’s portion of a funeral service which incorporates these elements.
A. Opening Prayer — (an invocation)
B. Scripture Readings — (Isaiah 4:32, 3a, Hebrews 11:1-6, Psalm 23)
C. Obituary — (Brief statement of birth and death dates, surviving family)
I. The meaning of our presence.
A. To discuss the reality of this death.
B. To discover our own needs at this time.
II. The Mourning (Grieving)
A. Each in his/her own way. There is no prescription. Each should respect the other’s way of mourning.
B. Tears.
C. Anger — at God — at the deceased.
D. Guilt for being angry.
E. Questions about thow the tragedy could have been prevented “if only”:
1. “I” had done something differently.
2. “They” would have done something differently.
III. Beginning to adjust.
A. To things not being the same again.
B. To filling life without the departed one.
IV. Making the Memorial (directed remembering)
A. Recounting some characteristics, habits and talents of the deceased.
B. Remembering the precious personal moments each has had alone with the deceased.
C. Remembering the family get-togethers.
D. Remembering precious words once spoken by the deceased.
(Note: The minister does not name these things; he simply asks the people to do this remembering. He can use “Prompts” as the process unfolds like, “Remember when Martha used to cook those wonderful Christmas dinners? Think about one of those just now. Can’t you see her shoo the children away from the pies? Doesn’t she look official there in her own kitchen? Look at that apron she is wearing.” Etc.)
V. Saying Goodbye
A. Poem (Such as Richardson’s, Good Night)
B. Prayer (Thank the Father for the warm and wonderful memories of the deceased.)
The purpose of the funeral is for the family and friends of the deceased to make a transition from one stage of life to the other. The Christian minister is in a strategic position to help that happen.

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