Yesterday William Thornton wrote about The Bizzare Cases of Strangers Speaking at Funerals. William recommended against “the growing trend of an informal, almost ad hoc service where various family members and friends may speak as well as the minister or ministers”. The article had a number of points about funerals that I would affirm as good advice – like making sure the gospel is clearly presented, and making sure you learn about the life of the deceased and include that in your message.
I thought it was worth some gentle pushback on the open mic time, however. I would estimate about half of the funerals I do have included a time of inviting anyone present to speak. I’ve never had a bad experience or a funeral go wrong because of including that element. The vast majority of time I’ve found it to be an very encouraging and memorable time for the family.
When I sit down with a family to plan a funeral, I take a sample service order that includes several optional elements at the bottom. I let the family know they are welcome to include any of those they prefer, and one of those options is an open mic time for family and friends. I allow them to choose if the mic will be completely open to anyone present or if they would like to pre-select a certain number of family and friends who will speak (that’s not technically an open mic time, but it’s close in the way it practically works out).
I haven’t gone back and counted, but I would guess half or more of the services I’ve done, the family has asked to include that optional element. I think it’s more common now for families to include that than it was 9 years ago when I started pastoring, but that’s just my sense.
Setup Is Key
I believe one of the reasons it’s worked well in services I’ve done is that it’s planned well and we have an emergency exit plan. First, I ask the family during our planning meeting if they have a couple family members who will want to speak, to at least one of them to be ready to go first. That avoids a long, awkward wait in a “who’s going to go first?” holding pattern. So ahead of time, I normally already know of two or three people who are planning to speak.
Second, near the beginning of the service, I let people know there will be “a time later for anyone who would like to share some thoughts about…” That way people have a few minutes to get their thoughts together.
Third, I introduce the time with some specific instructions (I almost have this part memorized): “We ask that you keep your comments relatively brief so that plenty of people will have an opportunity to speak and, of course, make sure whatever you decide to share is appropriate for this occasion.” This gives me an emergency exit plan. If someone were to go on too long, or if someone were to branch off in an area that’s inappropriate or uncomfortable, I am ready and willing to intervene with a firm but kind, “Thank you sister Margaret, let’s make sure others have an opportunity to speak.” I’ve never had to do that, but I’m always ready and let the family know ahead of time if it goes off the rails I’m prepared to handle the situation.
Allow it to Develop Naturally
Allow there to be some silence between speakers without feeling awkward. This adds to the authenticity of the moment. Some family members will cry while they speak. Let them know ahead of time people will understand and will appreciate their desire to speak at such a difficult time. After enough people have spoken, close down the time and thank everyone who spoke for their words.
People understand the unscripted nature of that time during a service so I don’t feel the need to police or correct theology on the spot. It’s an opportunity for people to speak their own thoughts. If there is some unbiblical sentiment expressed, I always have the time later in the service to gently, indirectly remind people of what the Bible teaches. This is actually one of the biggest advantages, one of the reasons I most like including open mic time…
I Read from the Bible
It’s not unusual for a family member to ask me to read a letter or poem as a part of the service. I’m sure most pastors have experienced that as well. I’ve found that most funeral poetry isn’t the kind of thing I’m comfortable endorsing. When I’m asked, I don’t even read the content before I respond with, “When I read in funerals, I read from the Bible.” I don’t want to sit with a grieving family critiquing the theology of line 6 of the needlepoint craft they’ve had hanging in their house since they were kids, for example. So whether it’s good theology or not, I decline kindly and offer that if one of their family members or friends would like to read something, they can feel free to do that during the open mic time. I’ve never had a family push back on that suggestion. I remind them cousin Richard would probably be honored if you asked him to read something during the service. (In cases of seriously unbiblical theology, I would let the family know I don’t recommend having that as part the service and offer an alternative, but I’ve never had anyone want anything like that, it’s usually just atheological therapeutic thoughts, which are not necessarily bad, in context, in proportion, and I know I’m going to give a strong gospel presentation during my message.)
So having the open mic time gives an informal outlet to those who want to participate but don’t need to be a part of the formal service structure. It allows a meaningful and encouraging time for the family. It provides a natural and comfortable time for people to talk and express their grief in a way that honors their loved one. There is an informality to the time that I usually sense to be a welcome relief of tension in the funeral service. It helps me before I preach to hear about the life of the one I’m about to speak about. I consider my job in leading a funeral to have two main goals: (1) honor the memory of the person who’s gone and (2) preach Jesus and his gospel. Open mic time has never once detracted from either of those goals.