Preparing a funeral sermon is one of the more difficult and rewarding challenges of ministry. When a family invites you to preside over a funeral or memorial service it is a wonderful honor. Being invited into a family's home at their time of deep grief is also a great trust and intimate connection. If you handle funerals with grace and care you will build deep and lasting friendships with those in your care. Here are some practical suggestions for how to prepare a funeral sermon with sensitivity, empathy, and wisdom.
Meet with the Family to Listen Funerals are communal attempts to remember and grieve a life. Your presence can help assist this process. Show up with a listening posture rather than a 'ministering' posture. When we ask what we could possibly say, we are already thinking about it wrongly. We need to think about questions we can ask.
Gather stories and memories as precious treasures. Ask questions about the deceased's life, preferences, joys, faults, and sense of humor. Do this in a natural way. Often if you are present to listen these stories will start coming out and you can simply sit back and give audience to the family's remembrance. At times it is helpful to pull out a small journal and take notes on stories or memories that may be helpful in the funeral service. Funeral service planning is one of the most important ministries you can provide after death.
Gather favorite hymns, verses, songs and poems. If the deceased was a person of faith, you can ask for favorite and most meaningful hymns and verses. These can form a personalized texture to the worship service. The worship service should have elements both of lament and celebration so be in tune for both. Some of these gatherings will guide the service, others will make it into the sermon itself.
Help the family determine roles and responsibilities for funeral service. Who will give a eulogy? Is there someone who wants to give a eulogy who can manage the emotional difficulty of the task? Is there a family member who might provide a reading? Have they determined pall bearers? All of these details are things grieving family members might need help remembering.
Ask if they have any needs the church can meet. Could meals help? Set up an ekklesion.com meal delivery site for them. Could a widow use help with lawn care? Think of death as an opportunity for the church to serve and love. This isn't just an added burden to your pastoral week. It is an open invitation to minister as a church to a family in need.
Choose a funeral passage that fits the life of the deceased. Search for a metaphor or sense of tone to the life of the person. Match the life with a fitting passage that can help move from grief to hope. "I do not want you to grieve as those without hope" from the letter to the Thessalonians can be appropriate for a well-lived, faith-filled life. 'I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy' can be a surprisingly comforting verse for a believing family grieving a non-believing loved one. 'Entertaining angels unaware' can be metaphorically applied to the loss of adopted children. The Psalms and Ecclesiastes have often provided great comfort. Eventually you will gather a collection of funeral verses that you can turn to. Keep them in a file and find the most appropriate one for each person. Each time seek to let the passage speak in a new way in light of the person who has passed away.
Weave the scripture's thoughts in and out with stories of the deceased. The goal of the sermon is to preach the good news, not to eulogize the life. Sometimes however, there are moments in a person's life that preach the good news for you. Also, even though the sermon acts as a witness to resurrection, it is a witness to resurrection with a particular person in view who has just passed. Use stories that bring both tears and laughter. Both have powerful cathartic functions for grief.
Offer a benediction of hope. Don't keep the nose of the sermonic plane headed down into melancholy feelings too long. Pull out of the dive both from moment to moment and in the sermon as a whole. Do not wait too long for inspiration and celebration of the grace and mercy of God in the person of Jesus Christ. We are to grieve, but not without hope.
- Be familiar with the funeral home before the service. Make sure the musicians and other participants are prepared for the unique setting.
- Have a few passages and basic sermon forms on file for weeks when funerals come in threes.
- Remember that ministering to a family at death is one of the most intimate and meaningful acts of a pastor. It will endear your ministry to a family for life. Give it the time and energy it deserves.
- Put the date of death on your calendar and do your best to contact the family members in the future.
- Avoid extreme gestures or facial expressions in a funeral service. Both a broad smile and disingenuous pity are out of place.