Suppose for a moment that someone asked you to rank the most important things you do as a minister. No doubt, nine out of ten pastors would list preaching funerals among their top three most important pastoral tasks. A funerals, or in some cases a memorial service, is the place where the Christian faith meets life’s most grievous ordeal. Although we may speak about the victory in Jesus and the joy of resurrection, the experience of a loved one’s death propels many people to the boundaries of anguish. Death creates emotions that many people rarely nurture and instead normally avoid. Yet, everyone eventually faces this reality of death. For human beings there is no other alternative. The power of death hangs over all our heads like Damocles’ sword. Death stings us with the barbs of anxiety from the time we are old enough to understand our own mortality. Thus, via its preachers, the church needs to offer words of faith and hope for those stung by death.
People who attend funerals are generally good listeners. This distinctive fact about funeral congregations differentiates them from usual Sunday morning congregations. Eugene Lowry’s valuable as well as practical book on preaching, The Homiletical Plot (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), addresses five stages of narrative format preaching with the first stage identified as the “upsetting [the listener’s] equilibrium.” Lowry suggests that effective preaching creates an “itch” of ambiguity or curiosity that the balance of sermon serves to scratch. This sermonic strategy focuses an otherwise distracted congregation.
However, on the occasion of a funeral sermon the preacher need not trifle with upsetting the equilibrium. The occurrence of death has already done this for the congregation, and this circumstance sets funeral preaching apart from a Sunday morning sermon. The presence of a body or simply the instance of death creates more than enough ambiguity for those present. Funeral attendees pay rapt attention. Death is the big ambiguity with which all humans constantly struggle. Thus, a funeral preacher has at least this one luxury: Those gathered at a funeral are ready to listen.
Christian funerals address what the Christian faith has to say about “the sting of death” (1 Corinthians 15:55). The funeral addresses both the specific circumstance and the individual whose death occasions the service. The funeral also speaks a wide-ranging word of faith to those assembled. This word of faith is particularly essential for those stricken by either the death of a loved one or a crisis of meaning provoked by death. Thus, a Christian funeral service addresses the general human circumstance of human finitude and the issues that death brings to the surface concerning the nature of human existence.
At the same time, however, the Christian funeral also attends to the death of a specific and unique individual. One of the things I have noted over the years is a characteristic imbalance of a funeral or memorial service. We hold in tension the specific person for whom we celebrate the funeral with the universal good news of the gospel that necessarily must be part of any service of death and resurrection. Thus we have both a specific person and the proclamation of the broad faith for which a congregation gathers.
Occasionally these services-and the older we become the more funerals and memorial services we attend-the identity of the deceased remains something of a mystery to the congregation. It seems as if the congregation is forced to consult the front of the funeral flyer simply to make sure they are in the right place. The preacher sometimes reads the deceased’s name in the obituary, but after that perfunctory mention the preacher fails to mention the deceased by name again. Or the preacher simply dismisses the person’s life completely and preaches a sermon with no reference to the deceased person’s life.
For one example, outside Corsicana, Texas, during the summer of 1981, deputies found a young woman brutally murdered. These deputies found her partially nude body dumped on a remote country road in Navarro County early one Sunday morning. Law enforcement authorities never caught the murderer(s). Because of the viciousness of the crime, the community’s emotions were bitterly frayed. On the afternoon that the community held her funeral services the church’s sanctuary overflowed. Three hundred or more people milled outside the church during the service for lack of seating.
The funeral preacher was the church’s pastor. The entire congregation, both inside and outside the church, was absolutely silent except for reserved weeping. Many of the people gathered did not know the young woman well, but out of their emotional distress, they gathered at the church to hear some word of hope or closure. The pastor proceeded through the funeral liturgy in an ordered, efficient, but passionless fashion. Incredibly, he never mentioned the deceased young woman by name. The funeral sermon was so generic that he could have delivered it for anyone. At the conclusion of the service and because of the anger it evoked in the congregation, only a handful of people even spoke to the minister. This well-meaning pastor had reduced this particular person to merely anyone who could have been anywhere. No name, no life-she was merely an occasion for gathering that summer afternoon. An irate man remarked upon leaving the church, “that preacher just killed her again.” Every sermon has as its double focus-both the good news of the gospel and the person for whom the Christian faith was incarnate to one degree or another.
Likewise the imbalance of the message can also be too far the other direction. Regularly contemporary funeral sermons concentrate so completely on the character and good moral qualities of the deceased that the gospel seems overlooked. If one attended one of these services, he or she would be hard put to explain why it was a Christian memorial service or even held in a church.
In her book In Times of Crisis and Sorrow (Josey-Bass, 2001) my friend, Carol Noren, writes these suggestions for a funeral sermon:
“The Christian funeral is an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. That proclamation must be as straightforward and free from in-house code language as possible in order for visitors to understand it. Referring to texts by citation only is not advised; it effectively shuts out those who don’t know the Bible well . . . Simple language is also appreciated by the mourners, who may be too wracked by grief to take in a complicated exposition of a text.”
Certainly Dr. Noren’s words ring true. There is no more appropriate time to preach the gospel. Thus funeral preachers need to keep two discrete issues clearly before the congregation. We must hold the preaching of the gospel in tension with the specific individual’s death for whom we have gathered to hear the good news of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
Preachers then have two types of material to prepare for a time of death. One set of materials can be prepared far in advance. These materials would be lessons on the gospel that concern death and resurrection. Most denominational books of worship or service books for ministers have identified scores of appropriate funeral texts. In addition, wise preachers also collect over time stories, hymn verses, quotations, prose selections, or poems appropriate for funeral or memorial services. Clearly the longer a pastor is in the ministry the larger the collection of materials to which that pastor may turn.
A second source of funeral material pastors pull together at the time of death. Every pastor has her or his own way of doing things, but I discovered that meeting with the family on a day between an individual’s death and the funeral service furnishes the family time to reflect on the meaning of their loved one’s life. I prompt the family’s contemplations by reminding them, “This service is for you. You need the opportunity to remember your loved one. If you have stories or songs or scripture verses or poetry especially meaningful, then feel free to share them with me.” I then meet with them and they share their reflections and remembrances. I rarely use all the material in the funeral service that a family offers. I frequently edit out inappropriate material, but often the families’ stories of the deceased’s life help shape the funeral sermon’s natural contours.
Are all these session productive? They are in the sense of catharsis that surfaces when someone actually provides a grieving family permission to speak of their loved one out loud. This is one of the most helpful aspects of ministry-allowing people to talk about things that seem inordinately important to them. Listening without judgment is a wonderful gift to offer those who grieve. After all, listening has always be a cardinal virtue of pastoral care. Contemporary people who live in a culture that seems unable to listen well especially appreciate this time of remembrance. Often the things shared have no place in a public service, yet in the families’ vocalizing these stories a careful and listening pastor aids the healing process. Too often well-meaning people do not allow the family of the deceased to actually talk about their loved one-often changing the subject out of fear of pain. This is a fundamental frustration to relatives in grief.
A second good reason for this time with family and friends is that it gives the pastor deeper insight into the deceased’s personality. This information humanizes a funeral sermon beyond measure. As a younger pastor, I habitually feared that sharing family stories verbatim in the service might appear boring to the family. However, the reverse is true. Families regularly radiate joy when their words are spoken back in the manner that the pastor first heard them. Families appreciate a minister who not only took the time to visit with them about an important matter but also conscientiously listened. In doing this deep listening a pastor gives the deceased family a precious gift.
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.