One of the most painful yet intensely gratifying tasks of the minister is to be involved in the planning and delivery of the funeral sermon. It is painful because of the deep amount of work involved in guiding the grieving family through this complicated time in their life, not to mention that the pastor has to deal with personal grief as well. On the other hand, it is also a pleasure in that ministers can immediately see the positive effects of their work with the family — that is, if the service and sermon are planned correctly.
Unfortunately, there is very little information available about how to construct the funeral sermon. One collection of funeral sermons I located effectively dodged all the important issues of the grieving family by filling the sermons with poems, anecdotes, music, and other highly emotional illustrations. Such collections of funeral sermons are published with good intentions yet are general in scope and focus on a biblical text and its appropriate exegesis instead of looking into the issues of grief.
Minister’s manuals, which are quickly referred to in the heat of the funeral plans, likewise lack adequate instructions about how to tend to the family’s needs with the sermon. Denominational manuals and books of worship, while treating the subject in a concise manner, are still not much better and, like minister’s manuals, deal with generalities instead of specifics. None of these “helps” instruct the pastor about funeral sermon construction at all.
The literature on homiletics is quite deficient concerning funeral sermon construction as well. John Broadus’ classic work only devotes three pages to the subject even though he relates that the funeral sermon is second in frequency of preaching only to the regular sermon. He notes that the grieving family “instinctively” needs to hear some words about their departed loved one but Broadus then goes on to suggest that such words should be brief and subordinate to the Gospel message of salvation.1 If this advice is followed, the very instinctive needs of the family are not addressed in the funeral sermon at all.
In looking through other books on preaching or sermon construction I have found that the literature is nearly devoid of any reference to funeral sermon construction. When a reference is found, it is almost always limited to a few comments and tucked away in the back of the book. Books on pastoral theology, such as the one by Thomas C. Oden, only echo this insufficient emphasis.2 William Willimon, in his Worship as Pastoral Care, is more extensive, devoting a whole chapter to the topic. He notes that the funeral service can be used to educate the congregation and family about death and the church’s view of death. He also notes that the service should focus on the death of the deceased and help the family/congregation through the three rites of passage: separation, transition and reincorporation. He appears to waver on this, however, when he later says that the service “may include elements from all three stages of the rites of passage” (emphasis mine). Willimon goes on to say that the service should affirm the grief of the family and avoid intellectualizations which deny the emotions of death. The funeral, he adds, should, in some way, be personal.3
This is better advice to the minister but still there is no mention of how to construct the funeral sermon so as to meet the immediate needs of the grieving family. Indeed, I have been able to locate only two books that actually center on the funeral service, and only one concentrates solely on the funeral sermon.4
In fact, as one reads through the plethora of helps, manuals, and books on preaching, three emphases for the funeral are overwhelmingly evident: 1) Keep the service focused on God, using appropriate hymns, prayers, scriptures, and affirmations of God’s providence; 2) help the family through their grief by addressing the death of the loved one and noting that this is a part of life that must be experienced and learned from; and 3) emphasize the resurrection of, and thus salvation provided by, our Lord. Only the first and last of these, however, get any real amplification in the majority of the textbooks.
The second emphasis — the one that is so necessary according to all the authors — is somehow lost in the midst of the theological rhetoric which seems to be used more to stay clear of the deeper issues of death than to comfort the bereaved. The brief words that supposedly focus on the personal needs of the family are squeezed away. It seems that, while the profession tries to deal with death and help the family, it actually denies death by not addressing it, or the family’s needs, at all.
J. Randall Nichols is quite aware of this deficiency and addresses the need of pastoral communication through the sermon. Although his book is focused on the psychology behind the Sunday sermon, his conclusions are useful in the preparation of the funeral sermon.
He warns that most ministers would rather refer to “a body of theological content or to an institution or procedure instead of to the people God has created and called.” This is due to the fact that most ministers are scared to enter into a person’s complicated life. Rather than meeting these complex needs, we instead remain in safe, familiar theological territory and preach only the gospel, thus only defining and challenging the people. The result is that they have been to church but their pain has been glossed over or even ignored by the minister.5 The parallels between Nichols’ warnings and what we have covered above in the preaching books and manuals concerning funeral service preparation are obvious.
If we are to identify an acceptable and workable model for a funeral service, we must first begin with what the family needs during the death, burial, and recovery brought about through the funeral experience. In meeting these needs, I am suggesting that the funeral service should become a microcosm of the larger grief experience which will take place over the next months for the family.
David K. Switzer has addressed the minister’s role in the time of bereavement and the needs of the bereaved. He notes that before any adequate care can be given, the minister must be free of any inhibitions caused by death. If there are any issues concerning death which he or she has not resolved, then appropriate counseling, therapy, or other help should be initiated. Once this is addressed, then the minister will be more disposed to actually stepping into the grief of the family and addressing this in the funeral service and sermon.6
The minister’s major function in the grief process, according to Switzer, is to “facilitate the verbal expression of the grief sufferer in regard to the deceased, the relationship that existed between them, and the death itself.” This can be done by meeting six needs of the grieving family:
1) Releasing negative emotions.
2) Affirming one’s self.
3) Breaking ties with the deceased.
4) The resurrection of the deceased within one’s self.
5) Re-establish old and begin new relationships.
6) Rediscover meaning in life.7
The funeral service itself will help initiate some of these needs. Just going to and through the service should release appropriate tears and pain. The minister should encourage this by giving the family (and the congregation) permission to do so in the service. Old relationships as well as new ones are established as the family meets long forgotten friends and new people who offer their regards and help for the days to come. Reading scripture, singing songs, hearing familiar litanies, and being near vestments and visual symbols of faith should help the family to hear God’s “voice” and feel God’s presence and comfort. This will also help them to rediscover some meaning for their lives during this crucial time.
The funeral sermon can actually foster the rest, if carefully prepared and allowed to address the personal concerns and traits of the family. It should help the family to grieve, affirm themselves, break ties with and also resurrect the deceased. In order to do so, the body of the eulogy should move in the following manner:
1) Begin the sermon by focusing on the death and the fears, doubts, and anxiety produced by this death. Use real language, not euphemisms. The person has died, not passed away or gone on to be with Jesus. These phrases can be appropriately used later in the eulogy or sermon once the point of the death has been made. The goal is to move — in some cases, even jar — the family into the realization that their loved one has died. When this takes place, the grief process can begin its healing work; what better place to begin than in the sanctuary with both friends and God beside you? Many times the family has not realized what has happened until they actually are in the funeral service and see the casket in front of them. This is not the time to dodge or deny death. This direct approach also identifies with the family’s grief and notifies them that you and the other worshippers are involved with them in their grief. Their burdens will begin to decrease with the realization that the whole congregation collectively shares the loss of the deceased.8
2) Move to memories, both pleasant and bad. Once the family has begun to release some of their grief upon God and the congregation, they can begin to relax, settle down, and even enjoy, to some extent, the memories of their loved one. This is an important part of grief work yet it is usually neglected in the instruction on how to prepare funeral sermons. If, as others suggest, this is so important, then why not make it the focus of the sermon?
Borrowing imagery from Earl Daniels, we should “tailor” each funeral sermon as if it were a suit of clothes made to the individual’s specifications rather than using stock sermons from manuals or from our own small collection of favorite funeral addresses.9 Visits with the family before the death and during the funeral preparation will facilitate the gathering of stories which will be useful in this process. Although tears may be shed when stories and memories are used from the pulpit, the family should also be helped to smile as they remember some good times with their lost family member. Smiles, leading to laughter, brought about from memories of the deceased and not from a flippant minister, will ease the hurt of the family.10
When these emotions are affirmed in the service, then potential guilt, frustration and even anger, can be appeased through emotional release. The family can also begin to accept the pain of the death with more dignity and with more love. This will lead to positive feelings of self-affirmation. If they can begin to feel comfortable with the death of their loved one, then they can begin to feel comfortable with themselves.
3) Let go of the deceased. It is much easier to deal with the separation caused by a person’s death if we feel that he or she is actually there helping us to get over it (“If only grandpa were here to help us through this”). This is the reason for the stories in part two. Through the caring, empathetic telling of stories the minister actually incarnates the life of the deceased right before the congregation. Daniels calls this “recreating the past” with the help of a “consecrated imagination.”11
The stories will resurrect the deceased into the service long enough to help the family through the pain of the loss. He or she is actually there in the service, accompanying the family and the other mourners as they remember. If they “see” and “hear” the deceased in the pulpit rather than a dry minister reading from a prayer book, then they can begin to be comforted.
The stories from the pulpit fulfill two needs. First, they revive the deceased. Second, they place him or her in the center of the church, where God is usually pictured to be. Being this close to God offers comfort to the family as they perceive that their loved one is in God’s arms, and it also lends more authority to the stories coming from the minister.
At the same time, since the deceased is now “living” in the family’s memory, they have hope in the future and can thus begin to say goodbye to the present, physical memory of their family member. It is important for the minister to actually tell the family at this time that they must say goodbye while affirming our Christian hope in resurrection, a hope that has become manifest for the congregation and the family in the now real memories of the deceased.
The following sermon illustrates the use of these principles and how the words from the minister, who is bringing the deceased into the sermon, should flow.
Psalm 23
Selections from John 14
We are here today to grieve and mourn the death of our loved one and friend, Bill ____________. At the same time, we are celebrating his resurrection, his eternal life in heaven. We ask God to help us in our pain and to lead us to a new hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus spoke the words from our New Testament lesson to the disciples just before He was crucified. He had been trying to tell them, much like Bill has been trying to tell us, that soon He must die. They had misunderstood, even plain denied that this could ever happen. Realizing their continued sense of denial and fear concerning His imminent departure, and because He loved them so much, Jesus used an image to help them understand and accept His eventual death. He did not get involved in the logistics and specifics of His death; instead, He spoke of mansions in heaven.
The last time I talked with Bill he told me about his family. He told me he loved his wife very much, that he wished he could take care of her better. He told me he was proud of his four boys, that they had turned out to be fine young men and that he knew they would continue to do good things in our society. He told me that he had tried to be the best husband and father that he could and he felt that his family’s love for him showed that he had indeed done a good job.
This was the first time he had talked like this to me and it told me that he was now ready to go to heaven. He was at peace with his family, himself, and with God. He was ready to die.
I am glad that God provided a mansion for Bill, because, like his license plate reminds us, he has already spent his children’s inheritance. He couldn’t buy a mansion in heaven if he wanted to. Bill loved his wife and children and his love for his family was symbolized in his home. It was on the farm that he could piddle around, repair the lawn mower, work in the garden. He could enjoy being with his wife, watch his grandchildren romp around the yard, or do various chores with the help of his children.
It was around this home that Bill could play tricks on his family or tell jokes to any who would listen. I always enjoyed his jokes, although, to be quite honest, most of them I had better not relate from the pulpit. It was in his home that Bill enjoyed watching and taping videos for himself and the children.
We, as Christians, believe in life after death, and we believe that, after death, we go to heaven to live with God. Thus, Bill is now in heaven, enjoying his new mansion. I suspect that he is already busy. Perhaps he is repairing God’s lawn mowers. I can just see him standing at the Gate, cracking jokes with St. Peter. Maybe he is making video tapes for God. I assume that heaven is up to date with all of our new, technological equipment.
The time has now come, however, for us to say goodbye to our friend and family member, Bill ___________. We must now let him go. We need to begin saying goodbye to the part of Bill that we could touch, smell, and embrace. We need to realize that this part of Bill is no longer with us. Now we need to begin enjoying another part of Bill, the part that comes to us in memories, tears and laughter. This is the part of Bill that will keep us going, keep us happy, until we too can go to heaven to be with him.
Thank you, Bill, for being a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. We enjoyed having you here with us, and we look forward to seeing you again when it is our time to visit you in your mansion in heaven.
The other portions of the service gave adequate attention to and emphasis upon God through hymns, prayers, and scripture. God’s love was affirmed and praised through the funeral sermon, albeit indirectly, while hope in resurrection was also acknowledged. Both of these two important doctrines were related through the miracle of stories. At the same time, the family’s important and “instinctive” needs were addressed. They realized that the Bill long familiar to them was now dead. They were allowed to grieve this loss openly in the service (many shed tears during this particular service) yet they also were allowed to laugh, something Bill would have encouraged them to do. Indeed, through memories, Bill was actually there, and this permitted them to both cry and laugh in his presence as they worked through their grief in positive ways.
Of course, many families have different needs in times of crisis, and smiles and laughter may not be appropriate for these services. Still, the service can be delivered tastefully by paying careful attention to the particular needs and personalities of the family. Discretion is advised, but do not dodge their needs just because you feel uncomfortable about them. That is your issue, not theirs.
For too long now we have stressed that the times of mourning and the times of laughing were quite separate during the days of the funeral. If prepared carefully, however, the funeral service and sermon, delivered in the cold season of death, can — through tears and laughter — address the needs of the grieving family and lead them to the summer of life.
1. On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4th ed., rev. by Vernon L. Stanfield (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1870, 1979), pp. 247-249.
2. Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983), pp. 292-310.
3. William H. Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), chapt. v.
4. A Time to Die: A Handbook for Funeral Sermons, by Kent D. Richmond (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990) is an excellent resource, but it does not give a structure for the funeral sermon that aids in the grief process. The Funeral Message: Its Preparation and Significance, by Earl Daniels (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1937) is more complete. Both will be referred to later.
5. J. Randall Nichols, The Restoring Word: Preaching as Pastoral Communication (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987), chapt. 1.
6. The Minister as Crisis Counselor (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974), pp. 143ff. Richmond, A Time to Die, pp. 48-49. See also Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), chapt. 9 and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Collier Books, 1969).
7. The Minister as Crisis Counselor, pp. 146-148.
8. Likewise, Nichols, p. 33, who calls this koinonia, or the building of a public that works together to share burdens.
9. The Funeral Message, p. 25.
10. For a discussion of the use of humor in the sermon, see John W. Drakeford, Humor in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986). Humor alleviates stress and thus opens the way for trusting interaction between two people. It builds rapport and breaks down barriers that may inhibit the process of pastoral care. Also, see Richmond, A Time to Die, pp. 53-54.
11. The Funeral Message, p. 29. Richmond, A Time to Die, p. 59, calls this “brooding” over the life of the deceased.

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