Conducting Funerals

03 Nov

(Note: One of our interns at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, asked for input on conducting funerals since it was not a topic typically covered in seminary classes. I put this outline together as part of his internship.)

The funerals I conduct generally come from one of two sources—a family in the church or a local funeral home.

If I am aware of a death within the church family, I try to contact them first to offer condolences and help. Sometimes it means leaving a message or voice mail, but I try to make the first contact. If it is a funeral home, they contact me to see if I am available on the day of the wake/funeral.

After the initial contact, I meet with the family. If it is a church family, this is done in person at their convenience. If the service is for a funeral home, I do this over the phone (getting the contact info from the funeral home). Regardless of whether I know the family or not, I try to gather the same information—favorite Scripture, favorite hymns/songs, stories & memories, life events, spiritual beliefs, etc. I want to get to know the deceased from their perspective. I also offer my condolences and prayers for them.

The family may need help in knowing what to do next. The funeral home is generally helpful in this regard.

The books on the bibliography are helpful in knowing how to plan the service itself.

  • Funeral Services for Today – James L. Christensen. Fleming H. Revell Company: Old Tappan, NJ, 1977
  • Minister’s Funeral Manual – compiled by Samuel Ward Hutton. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1968.
  • Leading Today’s Funerals: A pastoral guide for improving bereavement ministry – Dan S. Lloyd. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1997.
  • A contemporary handbook for weddings & funerals and other occasions – Aubrey Malphurs & Keith Willhite (eds.). Kregel: Grand Rapids, MI, 2003.
  • Weddings, funerals and special events: The personal ministry of public occasions. The Leadership Library, Volume 10 – Eugene Peterson, Calvin Miller, and others. Word Books: Waco, TX, 1987.

When I first starting doing funerals, I devoured them. Now that I’ve done many funerals, I use them occasionally.

During the funeral service itself, I have four primary goals:

  • Comfort the family
  • Talk about the hope of heaven
  • Preach the gospel
  • Glorify God

Long ago, I committed to preach the gospel at every wedding and funeral I did. You never know who may be present, and this may be the only time in their life they will hear the message.

A typical outline of a service might look like this:

  • Prelude
  • Welcome & Prayer
  • Congregational singing (or special music)
  • Scripture reading (passages often read include the following – Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; Psalm 90; John 14:1-6; Job 19:25-27; Psalm 116:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Psalm 23)
  • Reading of Personal History
  • Sharing Memories (optional)
  • Message
  • Congregational singing (or special music)
  • Benediction
  • Postlude

In crafting the message for the memorial service,

  • I ask the family if their loved one had a favorite passage of Scripture. If so, I try to put together a message using that passage. I’ve done messages on Psalm 91, Isaiah 26:3-4, Psalm 55:22, and Proverbs 3:5-6.
  • If they let me choose, I generally preach on John 14:1-6 or the biblical metaphors of death (going to sleep, going on a journey, going home).
  • I’ve also done a message on the book of Job and God’s sovereignty which I’ve used for tragic, unexpected deaths like my brother’s.
  • I’ve used Psalm 139 for the funeral of an infant who died at birth

When I am asked to do a funeral for a funeral home or the VA cemetery, and I don’t know about the person’s spiritual life, I generally start with the story of the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man asked Abraham to send someone to tell his family to get ready to meet God. I say that their loved one would want us to know 4 FACTS (using the word FACT as an acrostic)—Heaven is a FREE gift; ALL have sinned; CHRIST died for our sins; and we need to TRUST Christ for salvation.

Honorariums: I don’t charge to do a wedding or a funeral. I don’t approach these with a mercenary attitude and I don’t have any expectation of being paid. However, I know that families want to say, “Thank you.” A mentor once told me that to turn down a gift was not the gracious thing to do. We need to allow people to express their thanks. The only times I refused an honorarium was for my mother’s wedding and my brother’s funeral.

  • If someone from church wants to give me a gift, I receive it graciously, and I don’t open it until I get home.
  • A funeral home typically charges the family for the pastor. Again, I don’t set the fee, but I receive whatever is given. “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

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