Funerals get dropped into our schedule unannounced, and they can be challenging to prepare. Typically, a pastor will have between two to five days to plan and prepare for all that comes with a funeral.
The aim of this piece is to provide a helpful template to aid in preparing, while also covering some details that relate to leading a funeral service.
The Funeral Service
A good rule of thumb is to allow God to speak before you do. Though different kinds of people attend a funeral, they are all, in their own way, asking the same question, “Why, God?” Choose a passage of Scripture that cuts through the questions, the sorrow, and the skepticism and declares the unchanging character of our great God. For example, you might begin by standing, moving to the pulpit, and then saying something like, “Hear these words about our great, unchanging God”: Psalm 145:17 – 21.
The rest of the funeral service can be broadly outlined around five areas: prayer, music, Scripture readings, eulogy, and sermon. For each, make sure you are asking yourself how the gospel can be accurately presented.
Prayers can be staggered throughout the service, and you can involve different people. What should you pray for? Make sure you pray for the spouse, the children and grandchildren, and the friends of the deceased, as well as for their other acquaintances — that they would be comforted by God, find their hope in the gospel, and grieve in a way that honors God and the person they’ve gathered to remember.
Ask the family if they have songs they suggest for the service. Do all you can to accommodate the family while still realizing there are doctrinal lines to draw in the sand and preference lines you can bend on.
3. Scripture Readings
You can never go wrong with passages that make the gospel clear in plain reading, such as Romans 5:6 – 11; 2 Corinthians 5:17 – 21; Ephesians 2:1 – 10.
The eulogy is the time in the service when your focus is on the person who has died. Even if you knew the deceased well, it is best to prepare the eulogy by having a meeting with the family, preferably when most of them are present.
Spend time asking questions about the loved one — what they love and remember most about that person. Ask questions that provoke significant memories and reveal what they learned from the deceased and how their loved one served them. Ask about how their loved one was faithful as a spouse, parent, grandparent, soldier, employee/boss, neighbor, or friend. Also, listen for personality qualities that emerge about their loved one’s sense of humor, compassion for others, leadership roles, and recreational activities.
This template can be applied, no matter whether you are conducting a funeral of a Christian you knew well or a non-Christian you didn’t know at all. For a non-Christian, you can certainly talk about the person’s life in an endearing way. They were a person created in the image of God — a person who loved, cared for, sacrificed, taught, and served their family and friends in their own way until the end.
The most helpful advice I ever received about preaching at a funeral for someone I didn’t know was, “Don’t preach them into heaven. Don’t preach them into hell. Just preach the gospel for the people who are there.”
Exhort the attendees to grieve. Preach the gospel clearly and simply, helping them understand their need for Christ. And call them to repent and believe.
6. The Graveside Service
Your comments at the graveside will vary, depending on whether the deceased was a believer in Christ or not. For the Christian, you can remind people that the grave has been defeated.
Two Final Tips on Preparing Yourself
Preparing for and conducting a funeral is an emotional and mental drain. Let me suggest two ways in which a pastor can take time to prepare his heart, mind, and soul.
Prepare for the unexpected. Just when you think you have seen it all, the next funeral will surprise you. Prepare to watch families at their worst. If you expect something unexpected to happen, you will be able to think clearly and respond wisely when it happens.
Prepare to minister God’s word. Though there is much to manage, administrate, and facilitate, you are not the concierge of the funeral.
By Brian Croft and Phil A. Newton, adapted from Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals