I have been officiating funeral services since I was 22 years old, a young know-nothing pastor in the hills of Vermont.
My first funeral was for an infant who died of SIDS. That service was held on the coldest, rainiest and iciest day I can remember. Outside. At the cemetery. It was pure misery and falling tears, inside and out. I wrote a song in the child’s memory. I’m not sure if I ever sang it for the parents; it might have broken their hearts. I guess in the final analysis I wrote it for myself, as a way of trying somehow to express the desolation of laying a little boy in the ground.
And I have been doing funerals ever since.
That little church in Vermont was more like a parish church, which is true in many rural communities. In that village we had our share of elderly people who lived along the mountain roads, up and down the hills, along the brooks and in the hollers. We also had a good number of vacation homes in the area, some of which had been used by families for generations. Many of them who died had stated their wishes to be buried in our quaint graveyards where their tombstones would look out over the mountains to see the sun rise.
I won’t bore you with a litany of funeral stories, but suffice to say that I’ve done more services than I can remember. To this day, in my work as a hospice chaplain, I still find it one of the greatest privileges of ministry.
Stop and think about it. This is one of the most significant times in a family’s life. And, it is one of the few occasions in our culture when we actually face what we all fear most: death. The funeral is an event where folks expect the pastor to talk about God and life and death and hope and eternal matters. It is an opportunity for ministers to show people they care, that they are interested in hearing their stories, honoring their wishes, and commemorating the life of their deceased loved one. It provides an ideal reason for pastoral visitation and follow-up to give ongoing support to those who grieve. It is one of those situations where we can roll up our sleeves and have genuine, heart-to-heart conversations with people. Isn’t this why we went into ministry?
Why then do so many ministers have no clue about conducting funeral services for people?
Let me give you an example.
A while back, I attended a funeral service that was standing room only. The person who had died had a big family and a large number of friends and acquaintances. He was a veteran. For his career, he had worked as public servant in several different capacities that involved a lot of dealings with people in the community. He belonged to fraternal and service organizations. He was laid to rest in a uniform and his casket was draped with an American flag. His family had cared for him over a long period of time through various illnesses and then in hospice care. He did not practice religion throughout his life, but during his illnesses he expressed faith and always gratefully accepted prayer and pastoral visits. The pictures on the display boards and in the DVD tribute that ran during the visitation showed a man who spent a lot of time with his family, who enjoyed life, who loved to laugh, and was something of a rascal as well.
Now, if that is all I knew about this man, I think I could put together a funeral service that would both honor him appropriately and bring Christian hope to his family and friends.
First, I would meet with the family to talk about the service. I would encourage them during our visit to tell stories and give anecdotes that would help me get to know him and what his life was like. I would suggest that, since they knew him best, it would be appropriate for their voice to be heard in the service. Would there be a family member who might like to speak or share something? If not, would they consider getting together and writing down some remembrances that I could read on their behalf?
I would also ask if they wanted any special tributes spoken by me or someone else about his military service, his careers in public service, his community involvement. Had he received any honors? What made him most proud? In addition, I would ask about his faith and what they knew about that and how we might bring that part of his life to bear on the service. Did he have favorite verses from the Bible? Might there be any music that would enhance the service?
After gathering as much information as I could by spending time personally with the family or someone who represented them, I would also think back about what they had been through when caring for this man. I would try to imagine what their long journey must have been like and how tired they must be now. I would attempt to envision what the future will be like for them without his presence.
Now—put all this in a pot together. Simmer over low heat with thought, prayer, and contemplation. Serve over 30-40 minutes in a funeral service marked by personal concern, family involvement, remembrance of the deceased’s life, words of comfort to those grieving, and proclamation of hope in Christ.
So, what kind of a funeral did this man get?
- The only personal touch in the entire service was when a song was sung that the family had chosen for the occasion.
- Oh yes, and the obituary was read, which summarized his family and work.
- No personal stories or remembrances of his life.
- No acknowledgment of his military service, his career in public service, his work in the community.
- No recognition of his family for all the support they had given him in the final season of his life.
- No words of sympathy for the mourners, no expressions of encouragement for the journey of grief to come.
- No acknowledgment of the large crowd that had gathered, even though this death obviously touched a lot of people.
- No reference to things he enjoyed doing in life or his love for his family.
Instead, the pastor (who was known to some of the family members)…
- Talked exclusively about one or two visits he had had with the dying man when he had asked him about his personal relationship with Christ.
- Gave assurance that the man was in heaven based on the answer to one question on one of those visits.
- Preached a full Bible study topical message on heaven, how we know it’s real, what it’s like, how we can go there, etc., quoting passage after passage from the Bible.
- Gave an invitation at the end to receive Christ during the final prayer.
I call that pastoral malpractice.
Not because it is wrong to talk about knowing Christ and going to heaven, but because it was done without any context, without any sense of pastoral sensitivity, involvement, and concern.
First of all, I can’t ever get over what a privilege it is to be asked by a family to mark the occasion of a loved one’s death. How can anyone possibly summarize a life of 60, 70, or 80+ years and what it means in a half hour service? I think the mere fact that someone made it through this world for that many years is something worthy of attention and awe.
This is one of the most profound events in the world, and I feel like Jacob every time I’m asked to mark the occasion—“‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Gen. 28:16-17) A family and friends are saying “goodbye” to a loved one. This is death and the grave. This is the setting in which Jesus himself became overwhelmed and wept.
And a pastor can ignore all of that and not weep himself?
A pastor can fail to give “honor to whom honor is due” for accomplishments in life?
A pastor can forget to comfort the brokenhearted and give them encouragement for their ongoing journey of grief?
A pastor can be so blind to everything but the opportunity to possibly “win a few souls” that he fails to speak the words of salvation personally, in the real human context that is right in front of his face?
I am almost sure that when this pastor went home and his wife asked him how the funeral went, he praised God for the opportunity to preach the Gospel.
He may have used some of the right words. But as far as I’m concerned, he blew it. He missed one of the greatest opportunities ministry affords to be a neighbor, a pastor, a comforter, a friend.
A human being, for heaven’s sake!
Love God, love your neighbor. Is this really so hard to understand?