Why Wise Preachers Prioritize Funerals

“Will you be content preaching only once or twice a year?” the interviewers wanted to know.  I had, after all, labored through years of homiletical graduate studies. At first glance, the Care Pastor role didn’t seem like a step toward the big pulpit or big platform they assumed I sought.

“Yes,” I replied with conviction. I had pondered this over the preceding weeks. “Yes, in large part because my most vital recent preaching moment wasn’t a Sunday sermon for 1,500 people but a graveside homily for 15 mourners on a rainy Friday afternoon.” Funeral preaching, I have learned, is preaching at its most essential. 

Sixty years ago, German theologian Ernst Fuchs argued that funeral preaching is in fact the essence of Christian faith. “Death at the grave mocks the survivors,” he wrote, “‘Now you speak!’ And to this one must answer: ‘Love is the victor!’ This statement is a postulate. And this postulate is the postulate of faith.” To declare that Christ is risen, that His kingdom is coming, that faith, hope, and love abide, especially at the graveside, is the Christian thesis, the preacher’s job description, and one of the Church’s greatest opportunities today. 

Funerals and memorials are never convenient. They often take extra time from the preacher and from the preacher’s family. Often Friday interments followed by Saturday memorials can consume a pastor’s entire weekend. This cost can tempt pastors to dodge or downplay these rituals, but doing so would be a mistake. Funerals and memorials are vital forChristians’ spiritual formation, the Church’s witness, and the preacher’s heart.

Lost Rituals

In her foreword to Rob Moll’s The Art of Dying — an invaluable book in its own right —professor of Christian spirituality Lauren Winner describes the robust rituals surrounding death in eighteenth-century America. People spent countless hours at the bedsides of their dying friends and family. Families held wakes in their front parlors. Christians walked through churchyards on their way into worship, through the remains of the dead in Christ. Ritualized mourning garb guided the bereaved and the community through a months-long grieving process.

“But during the last century,” she says, “Americans have embraced an unprecedented denial of death, an unprecedented evasion of death. In general, we have removed death from our homes. . . . We no longer allow people to say that they are dying. . . . we encourage the sick (and their doctors) to fight death — but not to prepare for it.” Contemporary Americans often assume superiority over other nations and eras, but when it comes to death, we may be less prepared for dying and grieving than any other society across history and the globe.

Through visitation and every phase of the funeral — from planning to officiating —pastors help their congregations and the bereaved not only face death but also face death in light of the gospel and of the kingdom. A memorial is more than a therapeutic rite for a hurting family; it is more than an event to honor the deceased. It is the congregation’s response of faith to this death and to death itself, honoring God in the present and preparing members of the body for future loss and even their own dying. 

Purposes of the Interment

Families often come to memorial planning meetings with either too few or too many ideas. Some can’t name a hymn. Some arrive with multiple binders and USB drives. In either case, pastors help families by providing clarity about the purposes of each mourning rite. 

In the cultures I’ve inhabited — the Pacific Northwest, New England, the Tri-state area— Protestants typically hold three community grieving rituals (sometimes preceded by a fourthritual, a viewing or wake): the interment, the memorial or funeral, and the reception.

The first ritual, the interment, sometimes circumvents the pastor and the Church entirely. Some families entrust the deceased’s remains to whatever company comes up on Google. “The done thing” is delegated entirely to strangers. Often even Christians select a sentimental plan for the remains with no conscious connection to their Christian faith — some create no plan at all. Instead, I encourage Christians to plan a purposeful interment. They don’t have to spend a lot or impress anyone, but they should take the chance to commit the deceased’s remains to a particular place until Christ’s return. 

Families may choose to bury a casket, bury an urn, or inter an urn in a columbarium. Some may prefer a casket burial as a distinctly Christian (though more expensive) option. Regardless, the interment should be a conscious choice that bears witness to the resurrection. By choosing a place to inter someone’s remains, we testify that “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14), that “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise” (v.16). 

Contrast this, for example, with the Hindu belief in reincarnation, which Hindus enact by cremation and the scattering of remains in a sacred body of water. Christians, conversely, commit the remains of “those who have fallen asleep” to a particular place, because we believe that they will be raised when Christ returns. We call these places “cemeteries,” from the Greek word for “sleeping place,” because we consider them temporary. 

I once visited the Cimiterio di Varenna, overlooking Lake Como in Northern Italy, and my lasting impression was, “What a place to rise from the dead!” I thought the same when I visited my grandparents’ graves this summer at Punchbowl National Cemetery. They made two great decisions in the last years of their lives: Accepting Christ and being buried in Hawaii. 

The interment has two main purposes: First, to commend the deceased to God, until Christ’s return. This is well expressed in “The Burial of the Dead: Rite Two” from The Book of Common Prayer

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life 
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty 
God our brother N., and we commit his body to the ground; 
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless 
him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him 
and be gracious to him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon 
him and give him peace. Amen.

The second purpose of the interment is saying goodbye. The bereaved will continue to remember, miss, and mourn the deceased for months and years to come — for many, their whole lives — but the interment is a time to say goodbye, to step into a new season without the person who died. Many say goodbye as they drop a handful of dirt on the casket or lay a flower at the foot of the columbarium, a symbol a pastor can arrange and lead.

Purposes of the Funeral or Memorial

The funeral (a service preceding the interment, often with the remains present) or memorial (a service following the interment) is a worship service with three purposes: To seek comfort in God’s Word, to thank God for this unrepeatable person, and to proclaim the hope of the resurrection.

Personally, I believe every element of the service should correspond to at least one of these three purposes. Services I lead flow from comfort to thanksgiving to proclamation:My greeting begins with words of comfort and sympathy. I encourage hymns and scripture readings in the first third to focus on the comfort God’s Word offers. I welcome eulogies and memories, sometimes slideshows, in the middle of the service as ways (often very human ways!) of giving thanks to God for this unrepeatable person. Then, in the final part of the sermon, I proclaim the hope of the resurrection, often in partnership with a scripture reader and another hymn.

For this I take responsibility as the preacher. We are all there to mourn, but just as someone may be there with sole responsibility for making the coffee, so I am there with the primary responsibility to stand up and say: “Christ is risen, and so shall we be.” As Long writes, “The task of the funeral preacher is to stand and face the same harsh reality, the seemingly irrefutable evidence, but to tell another story, the gospel story, to tell the faith story that is truer than our senses, deeper than our emotions, more real than the empirical evidence at hand.”

These three purposes — thanksgiving, comfort, and proclamation — are important tools for planning the service with the family. If there’s something they would like to add to the standard service, does it fit one of these headings? If not, it’s probably better to save for the reception, or another time. 

These purposes provide structure for the attendees, teaching Christians and non-Christians alike to grieve in hope. Many show up out of genuine care for the family but spend the service mentally crossing off items on the order of service. The program can seem like an arbitrary jumble, to the churched and unchurched alike. In fact, too often the order of service is an arbitrary jumble. Clearly stating the three purposes of the service in the greeting and showing them in the printed program can help the attendees thoughtfully engage in worship and remembrance. 

The three purposes guide me as a pastor. I recently joined a church staff alongsidean experienced funeral planner, and she wanted some answers to some very good questions: “What do you do when the family members aren’t Christians? When mom just said in her will that she wanted to have a funeral at our church?” I welcome them to hold the funeral with us, but I make it clear that these will be the three purposes: To seek comfort in God’s Word, give thanks to God for this person, and proclaim the hope of Christ’s resurrection.

“What if the deceased probably wasn’t a Christian?” We will seek comfort in God’s Word, give thanks to God for this person, and proclaim the hope of the resurrection. “What if it was a hard death? A suicide? The death a young child?” We will seek comfort in God’s Word, give thanks to God for this person, and proclaim the hope of the resurrection.

Purposes of the Reception

Pastors sometimes overlook the reception as an important mourning rite. Logistically, others should probably take responsibility for the reception, and it’s a gift to the pastor and family when they do. Nonetheless, this seemingly mundane tradition plays a vital role for the family.

As Nancy Guthrie writes, “when someone you love has died, it’s as if a hurdle has been placed between you and every person you know, and that hurdle stays in place until your loss has been acknowledged in some way.” She adds, “It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or a long conversation. . . . It doesn’t have to be anything brilliant. Sometimes a simple ‘I know what has happened, and I’m so sorry,’ or even a nonverbal hand on the shoulder or squeeze of the hand, will knock down that barrier.” 

The primary purpose of the reception, from the cookies to the tri-fold boards, is to give others a chance to knock down these barriers. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is enough to open the line of communication, to acknowledge the loss and offer oneself as a companion for the road ahead. 

Additionally, fellow mourners often take the reception as an opportunity to tell stories about and say what they appreciated about the deceased. They speak her name, remember “that time when…” This, too, is a gift to the family; in fact, it often strays into worship to God. Here, the pastor often gives way to the congregation as they lead the way in loving one another. 

An Open Door

I attended my first memorial for a peer when I was 21. As much as I love (and loved) the gospel, I still remember feeling offended by the way each participant in his two-and-a-half-hour service tried to manipulate the attendees into accepting Christ. That is not what I am endorsing when I say that funerals present an open door for evangelism.

In fact, I mean the opposite. Rather than seeing funerals as merely a captive audience,vulnerable to something we’ve wanted to say, we must recognize that funerals are full of people with questions on their hearts to which we have answers. The difference is subtle but vital. If memorials come off as a bait-and-switch, they will often do more evangelistic harm than good. We are not dangling the opportunity to honor a friend and then springing a trap. Rather, people come seeking comfort and we share the comfort with which Christ has comforted us. People come seeking to give thanks for the deceased, and we tell them whom they can thank. People come seeking hope, and we share with them our hope: Christ is risen, and so shall we be. 

In contemporary North American society, few evangelistic programs get to meet a need that lost people recognize in themselves. Many lost people today feel they have sufficient fun, purpose, and community — but death unmasks this self-sufficiency. Many people otherwise uninterested in good news sit in funerals suddenly aware that they lack answers regarding loss and mortality. They don’t know how to grieve; they don’t know how to face death. We have answers, and they’re the answers they’re seeking, and they’re the answers we gather to remember together in the funeral: God’s love, Christ’s resurrection. 

That’s why these themes — comfort in God’s Word, thanksgiving to God, and the hope of the resurrection — should run through our memorials, and it’s also why pastors today may want to dedicate greater resources to funeral follow-up. In my prior pastorate, the most fruitful evangelistic conversations I had were with unchurched or dechurched people whose family members had asked to be memorialized in our sanctuary. Some will put great effort into winning professions of faith at the funeral; I focus my effort on winning follow-up appointments, where I get to talk with someone — daughter, husband, friend, acquaintance — about loss and comfort, death and hope, about Jesus Christ.

Preachers are caring people, and most will set aside a Saturday afternoon out of compassion. Yet, for ministers of the word, memorials are more than charity: They are essential to our vocation. They warrant our best shepherding, our best preaching, our best outreach. When we plan, lead, and preach funerals well, we teach those gathered how to die and how to live. We honor God, we find comfort, and we proclaim the hope of Christ’s resurrection.