Grief and Hope: Advice for Speaking at Funerals
One of the more daunting tasks of ministry is speaking at a funeral. Even the most experienced speakers and preachers can feel the weight of responsibility. What can mere mortals say in the moments that make any difference? What is the proper way to show pastoral concern without resorting to pity or maudlin sentiments? What follows are my humble suggestions after 25 years of conducting funerals while begging for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and simply trying to say what seems most appropriate at the moment.
Say what you know.
For various reasons, our culture approaches death with a focus on the unknown. Is there life after death? Will this person be in paradise, limbo, or Hades? Does the soul go straight to heaven at death? Can the departed see us right now? Did he or she really repent? Does God accept their confession of faith or their baptism? Did he or she do enough to be saved? Questions like these swirl around the funeral process, and I have learned that it is pointless to try to answer all of them because I do not know. (On some we actually do know the answers, but that’s for another point.) However, no wants theological humility at a funeral. A long litany of how death is the undiscovered country is not that comforting. Instead, say what you do know. If you knew the deceased, share those observations that anyone can claim. How did everyone know this person? How was his or her faith and virtue recognized?
What if you do not know the deceased? Sometimes we are asked to speak at the funeral of a person we don’t know so well. In that case, the next point applies even more than in any other case.
Read the script.
I am not talking about a boilerplate order for the dead. Rather, read the “script” that is given to you by the life of the deceased. I have always found it unsettling for people to compliment me for a funeral sermon. I appreciate the gratitude, but I feel ghoulish if I take any satisfaction at preaching because of a death. However, I have learned that the life of the deceased has given me the words to say. What loved ones appreciate is that I have spoken truthfully of the deceased. So when compliments come my way, I always reply that their life provided the script that I read.
Where do we find this script? We find it by paying attention. I used to make a point of visiting privately with the family. I just thought it was the right thing to do. Over the years I have found that arranging a special meeting with me so that I can scribble a few notes for a sermon isn’t always convenient or helpful to the family. Some families, when put on the spot like that, are not sure what to say. Yet, if you attend the visitations and listen to others discuss the departed, you will discover themes and/or recurring stories. Collect these and meditate on them. If there is some connection to Scripture or biblical wisdom, make the connection.
No two funerals are exactly alike.
For instance, there will be striking difference between the funeral for a child and the funeral of a terminally ill 95-year-old who views his death as a homecoming. If you cannot appreciate this, then perhaps you shouldn’t be preaching at funerals. However, even the best of us can get into a habit of following our own script rather than paying attention to the particular situation. Draw from the wisdom you will gain over the years, but always respect each funeral as unique. For the preacher, this may be the 201st funeral you’ve ever preached, but for the family and friends of the departed it may well be their first experience with death.
Say what you know—from the Bible.
There’s no need to speculate or seem tentative about Scripture’s statements on life, death, and resurrection. When we get a large view of the resurrection (i.e. 1 Cor. 15, 2 Peter) we know what has to be said. Among my favorite Scriptures is 1 Thess. 4: “We grieve, but not like those who have no hope.” Paul even advises the church to comfort one another with these words. We can speak this greater reality in the midst of grief without resorting to triumphal slogans. Scriptures like 1 Thess. 4 illustrate how grief and hope can be companions and occupy the same time and space in our experience. I recall how Charles Siburt expressed this truth in a way that affirmed both grief and hope. I don’t know if the statement was original to him, but he always spoke it convincingly: “In Jesus Christ, the worst things are never the last things.”