Consider it part of the ministerial macabre but stories about death, dying, and funerals interest me mainly because I figure I’ve seen or heard it all when it comes to funerals. It never fails that I run across stories that show that I haven’t. Check this story of a recent funeral:
At this funeral a total stranger, one whom the family had never met, decided to stand and speak. Seems the deceased was Asian non-smoker who died of lung cancer. The stranger lectured the crowd on the high smoking rates for Asians. Appalling.
One thing that mildly worries me about funerals over which I preside is 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 worst that has happened when I’ve been present is for a family member to become totally overwhelmed by their emotions and make a mess of whatever they planned to say. It’s understandable but not the best funeral practice in my view.
Far more egregious than that are funerals I’ve attended where the minister seemed to be a total stranger to the deceased, making little or no mention of the man or woman. What must the family members sitting on the front rows a few feet from the casket think when they suffer through an entire funeral for their loved one and the preacher acts and sounds like a total stranger to the deceased? Isn’t the service being held because this person died? That is almost as appalling as the case cited above.
A few humble tips on funerals, some of which the pastor will conduct without knowing the deceased well or without even having met the deceased.
If asked to conduct the funeral the minister should gently but firmly insist on planning the service in accord with good practices consistent with his faith.
Families often wish for some relatives to share in the service, read a statement, or share a poem. I rather like the discipline exercised by some hierarchical religious traditions which have strict rules about what is acceptable in a funeral service. We Baptists often make it up as we go but sometimes you have to say, “no.” A funeral held in the church sanctuary is easier to manage in view of the propriety of music and such but almost all funerals I do these days are held in a funeral home chapel, not my home turf. I don’t recall many class sessions in seminary on diplomacy, sensitivity, or finesse. The minister better find a supply of all of these.
If only we had a tradition of not allowing music at funerals. Most of the problems would be solved. Naturally, music ministers long for music-only funerals, thinking that the preacher is the main problem.
For the funeral of a stranger or someone the minister knows only casually, take time to find some personal information that can be used in the service.
Please, you cannot just ignore that the service is being held on the occasion of this unique individual’s death. There is always some information that is appropriate for the service without preaching the man into heaven (or hell). Military service, personal stories, occupation are likely candidates. Sometimes I’ve done funerals of people who have lived a life of abject depravity but late in life were saved and changed. It’s better to clear with the family how much of the past is appropriate to share especially if you didn’t know the person well enough to have heard his or her own words on their life story.
It’s always appropriate, demanded actually, that the minister represent God, Christ, and the way of salvation.
There’s always a marryin’ preacher in town who will take a few bucks and hitch anyone to anyone and there always seems to be a buryin’ preacher who will take the hundred bucks to lend a religious presence at a funeral regardless of the faith or lack thereof of the deceased. It’s better to turn down some funerals rather than sell your services. There isn’t a funeral where the pastor cannot turn the service to the great spiritual truths of our faith. Why else would the minister be involved?
It helps if you can learn from older, faithful ministers who do funerals well.
One of the great regrets I have about serving as a pastor is that I didn’t have a few years serving with a wise, older pastor. I had to learn a bunch of stuff on my own, often by making mistakes. There have always been fellow pastors that I knew handled funerals skillfully and always seemed to know the right things to say. If you can find one of these attend some of their funeral services and learn some things. Too bad we Baptists don’t have a required apprenticeship policy.
God bless you in your work as you do this important ministry.