Things You SHOULD DO and SHOULD NOT DO When Preaching a Funeral

by Jared Moore on June 27, 2011 · 34 comments

This article was originally posted at my site. Only some of my articles are posted on SBC Voices. If you would like access to all of my articles, you can follow my feed here. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Do…

1. Preach the gospel. Funerals force all in attendance to admit their mortality, including their eventual death and judgment. Although we hide ourselves from death continually (do you see animals die, do you bury your own dead, etc.?), funerals force us to look mortality in the eye. Whenever we admit that death is real, understanding that it’s “the wages of sin” is just one step further. God is the one who has judged sin temporally through death; however, He has crucified His Son so that sinners will enjoy Him forever through Christ. Christ’s death propitiated God’s wrath toward sinners. Sinners simply must repent, placing their trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Hopefully this “face-to-face’ meeting with mortality will send your hearers running to the cross for salvation.

2. Accommodate. Some of you may disagree with me on this; however, I will gladly read poems that speculate concerning eternity if the family of the deceased requests it. I however will qualify what I’m about to read by saying, “The family has asked me to read this poem titled.” Just because you read it does not mean that you necessarily approve of all the theology that it contains. Although I will not read a heretical poem for anyone, I will gladly read a poem that I disagree with that is still in the realm of orthodoxy.

3. Preach the truth concerning heaven and hell. There are more sermons on heaven than on hell in today’s pulpits. As pastors however we should emphasize both places since the authors of Scripture emphasized both. You should not allow this rare opportunity to pass you by to preach the result of trusting in Christ: heaven, and the result of rejecting Him: hell.

4. Preach the gospel from the deceased’s perspective. Something interesting that the Scriptures teach is that both heaven and hell are full of entities with a desire for evangelism. Peter says that the heavenly angels desire to look into sharing the gospel (1 Pet. 1:12), and Jesus says that those in hell wish someone would share the gospel with their loved ones so that they wouldn’t have to come to such a place (Luke 16:27-31). Bring this reality up by saying, “If the deceased could be here today, he would tell you to place your trust in Jesus Christ; for he knows today more than ever that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one gets to the Father but by Him (John 14:6).”

Do Not…

1. Correct theology beyond the gospel. If the gospel does not hinge on the theology that is believed or being presented by someone else at the funeral, then you have no need to correct it at this time. The gospel should be the emphasis, not 100% correct theology. Basically, whatever is in the realm of orthodoxy should be tolerated. Only come against what you know to be 100% false; and don’t be arrogant. After all, you should not be as sure about eschatology as you are about the resurrection of Christ.

2. Speculate about the deceased’s location at this moment: heaven or hell. Regardless how godly or ungodly a person was, we do not know 100% whether this person is in heaven or hell at this moment. We must be careful to preach people into heaven or hell. Instead, we must seek to be vague about what we do not know, and instead focus on the power of the gospel for those that believe. Your sermon is not for the deceased (he’s not there); but, is rather for those present. Emphasize the fact that all those who trust in Christ will be reconciled to God through Christ, absent from the body and present with the Lord until the day Christ returns, and their bodies are raised from the dead and join their spirits to rule and reign with Christ, forevermore exalting God. Oh happy day!

This article was originally posted at my site. Only some of my articles are posted on SBC Voices. If you would like access to all of my articles, you can follow my feed here. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

1 Dave Miller June 27, 2011 at 10:43 am

I am on my way to a funeral right now. I live in a area that is primarily dominated by paedobaptist churches, especially the liturgical ones. The common idea preached at funerals here is “Mrs. McGillcuddy’s sins were washed away in the waters of baptism.”

I usually separate the eulogy from the message. In the eulogy I help the family and friends remember the departed. But I almost always try to make it clear in the message that salvation is not by works.

“You have wonderful memories of Mr. Smith – good man. but we need to remember that when he passed away, Mr. Smith’s destiny did not depend on his religion or his own good works. It was his faith in Jesus that mattered.” Something like that.

In a area dominated by churches that proclaim salvation by baptism, by mass, by works of religious ritual, it is very important at funerals to proclaim the gospel truth of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.

2 Jared Moore June 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Amen!

3 David R. Brumbelow June 27, 2011 at 11:00 am

At a funeral I do often mention where the person is, if he was a Christian. I say something like:

Bob is not in this casket today. That is just where he used to live. For the believer, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Bob is in Heaven today. He was a good man and did many good things, but that is not why he is in Heaven.

He is in Heaven today because many years ago Bob realized he was a sinner and needed a Savior. He knew Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again. He knew from God’s Word that Jesus shed His blood for him. In simple childlike faith Bob asked Jesus to forgive him of his sins and come into his heart and be his Lord and Savior. That is the reason Bob is in Heaven today. And it is the only way any of us can get to Heaven. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

Like you, I often “cover myself” by saying the family has asked me to read the following…
David R. Brumbelow

4 Debbie Kaufman June 27, 2011 at 11:02 am

Thank you for number 2 Dave. For personal reasons, I needed to hear that and it is so true.

5 Todd B. June 27, 2011 at 11:16 am

The most powerful funeral sermon I ever preached was upon the death of a matriarch of our church. She and I would often speak of friends and relatives of hers that needed the Lord and she would ask me to pray for them. At her funeral it was standing room only — the largest crowd I had seen. When I stood before them, I told about how she and I had prayed for many in the room, “And this is what she would want me to share with you …”

The sermon was a celebration of life and a testimony to the gospel. The hardest funeral I ever did, and the most joyous!

6 Christiane June 27, 2011 at 11:30 am

My favorite funeral verse is found, not so strangely, in the Book of Job, chapter 19:25-27

” For I know that My Redeemer liveth,

and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

And though after my skin worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself,

and mine eyes shall behold, and not another ”

My thought is that people who lose a dear one are often unable to grasp the loss fully at that moment, but Job’s words are more than comfort . . . they are triumphant and resounding with faith.
I do not know the nature of a Southern Baptist funeral, but I know of their great love of sacred Scripture . . . and there may be funerals where this portion of Job might bring some good for those who are bereived, and for all those who come to stand with them in their loss.

7 Dave Miller June 27, 2011 at 2:13 pm

A lot of my funeral philosophy was shaped by an old funeral director years ago who said, “You preachers undo everything you preach on Sundays when you do funerals.”

He had kind of a works salvation mentality, but he said it this way, “You tell people to live a certain way, then no matter how they live, when they die you tell everyone they went to heaven.”

We need to be real careful about what we say at funerals. We should be tactful and minister to the family. But even in a time like this (or especially in a time like this) our first loyalty is to the gospel.

8 Jared Moore June 27, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Amen again!

9 Mike Bergman June 27, 2011 at 10:05 pm

The very first time I did a funeral, I actually had two on one day. The second one was of a 50-ish year old man who died of liver cancer. That was actually the easy one.

The first was of an infant who had died in the womb a mere two days before her due date. And that is something I pray I never have to do again.

As part of the funeral I “accomodated” and read a poem that was within the realm of orthodoxy, as you said (it was from a W.A. Criswell book) but also had some bits I didn’t agree with. Between the emotions of the day, the tiny casket, and even that poem it was everything I could do to keep from breaking into tears reading the thing.

The mother was Catholic, the father grew up Baptist, and they both went to my church…and I preached the Gospel the best I could.

The cool thing was–the day after the funeral, while all the family was still around, we baptized the father.

It’s amazing how if we keep the focus on the Gospel, God can even use the greatest of tragedies to bring about the greatest of goods.

10 Steve Martin June 28, 2011 at 1:57 am

If Baptism is just a symbol…then to hell with it!

(Flannery O’Connor said the same thing about Holy Communion)

God does save in Baptism. Read 1st Peter. Read Romans 6. Read Galatians 4.

God is the one doing the Baptizing, and He makes us promises in our Baptism. promises that are always valid and good…if we trust them. Baptism is not a ‘get in free card’ however. We can walk away from our Baptisms and then of what use are they?

Christ does the saving, that is for sure. One of the ways He has chosen to do it, is in Baptism. Otherwise He wouldn’t have commanded us to do it (just for kicks).

Thanks.

11 Christiane June 28, 2011 at 9:12 am

Hi STEVE MARTIN,

I don’t think you understand the teachings of the Southern Baptist people concerning baptism. They don’t share your point of view as their interpretation of sacred Scripture leads them into another direction. Try to get an understanding of their point of view, and I think your comment would have a different tone. They aren’t disrespectful of baptism, they see it differently. I can’t speak for them, as I don’t share their point of view, but I respect their sincerity in what they do believe about baptism.

12 Steve Martin June 28, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Christiane,

I do understand the So. Baptist view of the Sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion).

I’m saying there is a more excellent way, than that understanding. A more God centered understanding, and a less humanistic understanding.

Look at this relatively short piece by my pastor (with lots os biblical references):

http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/baptism-gods-decision-for-you/

I don’t expect to convince anyone here, but I would like for you to understand the reasons why we believe the way we do about it.

Thanks, Christiane.

13 Stephen M Young II June 28, 2011 at 10:48 am

2. Speculate about the deceased’s location at this moment: heaven or hell.

There are times when there is no speculation. Why be vague then?

14 Dave Miller June 28, 2011 at 11:31 am

If someone has given evidence by their life of their redemption, I state my personal confidence that this person knew Christ and is in glory.

If someone was a church person, but I have little personal knowledge by which to judge, I say something on the order of, “by his own testimony of faith in Christ” he believed in Christ and this is what happens to those who believe.

If I have serious questions about the destiny of the deceased, or have reason to believe that he or she is in hell, I say little about that.

I don’t have the right to pronounce that judgment.

But here’s what I do. Sneaky? Maybe. I do a eulogy in which I remind the family and friends of the deceased’s good points. Then, I preach a sermon in which I communicate two primary truths (different each time, but the same skeleton).

1) Death is a realiity for every one of us. “All flesh is as grass.” At the point of death, it is our relationship with Christ that matters. I do not even mention the deceased at this point.

2) Christ is the one to whom you can turn today for not only salvation, but also for strength and help in grief.

15 Jared Moore June 28, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Stephen, when are there times when there is no speculation? Explain such a time.

16 Doug Hibbard June 28, 2011 at 8:53 am

Whatever you do, avoid: “All we see here is the shell, for the nut has gone!”

17 Squirrel June 28, 2011 at 10:30 am

Hehehehehe

I like you. I really do.

Squirrel

18 Dave Miller June 28, 2011 at 11:25 am

Don’t encourage him, Squirrel.

19 Brent Hobbs June 28, 2011 at 9:11 am

Instead of reading (non-/semi-/fully- orthodox) poems, I just let people know that “I read from the Bible” during funerals and if they have a poem they’d like read, I’d be happy for them to ask a family member or friend of the family to read that poem. That way I avoid getting in the position of having to turn down a poem because it crosses whatever line I might have set up.

20 Jared Moore June 28, 2011 at 11:21 am

Brent, that’s wise advice.

21 Jason June 28, 2011 at 11:33 am

I thought calvinists were supposed to be dangerous when they go into churches. ;) I read that somewhere on here.

This is all good advice and wise counsel.

I think I had attended enough funerals with bad sermons by the time I became a pastor I knew what I wanted to avoid doing. This article hits the nail on the head. I am thankful to one pastor who I served under who really helped me understand how to be theologically accurate and also concerned with the family and ministering to them. It’s a delicate balance at times…but it must be maintained.

22 Dave Miller June 28, 2011 at 11:38 am

You have hit upon the necessary balance, Jason. We have to minister to families AND be theologically accurate.

here’s our problem: at funerals, very often theological accuracy is not comforting. Dear Uncle Morty rejected Jesus and is in hell. Not a comforting truth.

The trick is to balance the hard truths with ministering to the family – presenting Jesus to the family without heaping condemnation on the departed.

23 Dave Miller June 28, 2011 at 11:33 am

While we are regaling our “gripes” about Christian funerals, here’s one of mine.

I have family and friends in heaven. But heaven is not about a big family reunion with Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Fred. Heaven is about Jesus.

I have heard the glories of heaven primarily described as seeing our dear departed again.

24 Jason June 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

Amen.

25 Todd B. June 28, 2011 at 5:14 pm

When I entered the gates of the city
My Loved ones all knew me well
They took me down the streets of heaven
All the saints were too many to tell
I saw Abraham, Jacob and Isaac
Talked with Mark, sat down with Timothy
But then I said, I want to see Jesus
He’s the One who died for me

26 David R. Brumbelow June 28, 2011 at 5:35 pm

My Savior First Of All

Oh, the dear ones in glory, how they beckon me to come,
And our parting at the river I recall;
To the sweet vales of Eden they will sing my welcome home;
But I long to meet my Savior first of all.

I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
And redeemed by His side I shall stand,
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
By the print of the nails in His hand.
-Fanny Crosby; John R. Sweney

David R. Brumbelow

27 Jason June 28, 2011 at 11:42 am

Dave,

I was with a member of our church at the funeral for her brother. He lived next door to a church and that pastor did the funeral (it was in another town). As the pastor is going on and on about how this man was in heaven and we would see him again. This church member, the man’s sister, leans over to me and says “this pastor is crazy….my brother split hell wide open the minute he died”. I had to keep from laughing in the middle of the service.

Of course it is not funny that someone is in Hell, not in the least. But this pastor thought he was comforting the family, but they had better theology than he did.

Funny, but also sad moment.

A helpful reminder to me that we cannot presume upon a person’s eternal destiny, especially if (like this pastor) we didn’t even know the guy.

28 Jason June 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Can I just say how refreshing it is for all of us, despite our differences, to affirm the necessity of preaching the Gospel and remaining faithful to the Gospel while we seek to minister.

Encouraging topic. Encouraging posts.

Glad to not have to be debating anything on here. :)

29 bill June 28, 2011 at 6:25 pm

My Great Grandmother will turn 104 this year.

I firmly believe that when she does pass, she wants to see two people: Jesus and my Great Grandfather who passed away thirty plus years ago.

I’m actually looking forward to her funeral because it won’t be sad and depressing, it’ll be a celebration of a life well lived and a homecoming for her. I know that sounds bad, but she has declined to the point that going home is far better than staying here.

30 Jared Moore June 28, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Bill, in the past couple months, I had 2 separate believers say that they were ready to go. So, I prayed that God would take them. Both were taken within in a few days. Based on Christ’s finished work, they’re in heaven with Christ today, if their trust matched their profession.

31 bill June 28, 2011 at 10:05 pm

My prayer is that my great grandmother goes to bed with sweet dreams of my great grandfather and wakes up gazing into the face of our savior. That’s been my prayer for some time now.

32 gloria dyet June 28, 2011 at 6:40 pm

I always listen to a funeral sermon to see if the pastor makes it clear about salvation. What an opportunity.

33 Dave Miller June 28, 2011 at 8:39 pm

On Sunday morning, the vast majority of our congregation are saved (by testimony). But I preach to more lost people at funerals than at any other time. So, at a funeral, the gospel needs to go forward.

34 Jose July 8, 2011 at 1:52 pm

This is a very informative thread! I appreciate eveyone’s contribution! My issue is in the case of a funeral for an individual who “split hell wide open” like the one Jason spoke about. Clearly, his sister could not have known her brothers heart yet she knew his life and his testimony well enough to make that statement. And barring any deathbed salvation, then she was probably right.
Now, how do you speak at a funeral where it would be considered common knowledge (by you and the family), that the deceased had no outward (and perhaps by extension inward) evidence of being a believer? What would you say, if anything, about the deceased’s life while staying true to the Gospel and to the need for those present to surrender their lives to Christ? Can you bring any comfort to the loved ones while making clear the consequences of a life and death outside of Christ? This has always been a dilemma for me. Thanks in advance for your responses!

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