How to preach a funeral

There’s no ‘right’ way, but there is a faithful way, writes Andy Gans.

I try to share that, even though today might be difficult, there is good news in the midst of the pain beyond what we know here.

My fear after graduating seminary was not how to lead a session meeting, or how to lead worship. I wasn’t even fearful about how to help a church set a vision for its future.

My biggest fear was “how do I lead and preach a funeral service?”

I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because we only spent one class period on “How to do a funeral service,” or because I worried about saying “the right thing.” Maybe I was afraid I wasn’t going to be pastoral or comforting enough. But I knew that I didn’t want to mess up.

I remember my first few funeral services. Questions ran through my mind as I wrote: “Have I spoken enough about the person? Have I presented the Gospel message enough? How much is enough, and how much is too much?” I watched other pastors lead funeral services to see what was the “right way.” I saw some that were all Gospel messages with no mention of the deceased person, and no sensitivity to the family. Others were all about the person with never a mention of Jesus’ name.

I realized that there was no “right way” of writing a sermon for a funeral, but there is a faithful way to deliver a message of hope and healing. My way is listening to the Spirit’s direction to intertwine Scripture and story.

Looking for glimpses of God

After a death, I enjoy visiting with the family and listening to stories about the family member. I listen for glimpses of God’s reflection during the life of the deceased.

And then I ask the family about the person’s faith and how they might have seen God reflected in that person’s life, questions that lead to the cornerstones of my sermon. I have come to understand that families, and those gathered, appreciate both the retelling of stories within the service as well as the importance of sharing the Good News of the Gospel message. I try to share that, even though today might be difficult, there is good news in the midst of the pain beyond what we know here. There can be joy because of the faith we have in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

I try to share that, even though today might be difficult, there is good news in the midst of the pain beyond what we know here.

I found my groove in preparing for funeral sermons. But my fears returned when a beloved parishioner died the week of Christmas, and the family asked for a Christmas Eve funeral.

“This is Christmas Eve,” I thought. “It’s supposed to be a happy time. How do I deal with and speak to the pain and sadness this family is going through?”

God helped me realize no better message could be shared with the family than the message of the incarnation of the Messiah.

And so, I wrote:

“I have to say that when Betty asked to have the service for Bill today, I was more than a little nervous. I mean today is supposed to be about joy, happiness and gifts. And right now we are not feeling much joy or happiness as we mourn Bill’s death.”

“But then I was re-reading the Christmas story in Matthew and the words of the Prophet Isaiah (40:28-31), and they reminded me that even though we are extremely saddened by Bill’s death, and we don’t feel much joy, the Christmas story brings us great hope and shows God’s incredible love for us. I mean … God broke into the world in the form of a child. Emmanuel … God with us. A child that would bring hope to the captives, hope to the hungry, hope to the marginalized, and hope to the bullied. The babe, whose birth we welcome in and celebrate tonight, is the one who told us that death no longer has a sting. That death from this life is the birth into an eternal life with our Creator.

This is the hope Bill treasured in his heart and the hope he lived in every day. It was this hope that gave him joy … happiness … and courage to heed God’s call upon his life to teach young people. A calling that wasn’t always the easiest to live out. But even when times got tough, Bill had a hopeful outlook because he believed in the kids, and in his God …

Can you see how Christ worked through Bill? And how Christ can work through each one of us? This Christ child whom we welcome in tonight is the one whom Bill welcomed into his heart every day of his life.”

There can be joy because of the faith we have in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

The tools of a person’s faith and ministry

Over the years, the Spirit has given me another tool (pun intended) to use when preaching funeral sermons. When appropriate, I use items I feel were tools of ministry the person used. I have used golf clubs, fishing rods, a fireman’s helmet and other items I felt were extensions of that person’s faith and ministry. To illustrate, here’s another sermon excerpt:

“You would never think that a stethoscope … rubber gloves … a sponge … bucket and soap were tools of ministry. You would never think that these objects would draw people closer to God and help people understand the love of our Savior Jesus Christ. But they actually are AND they were the special tools Steve used. You see, it was by using these objects that Steve got to know people, got to share in their lives, and, most importantly, got to share in the love they had for each other.

Steve loved and cared about people. You could see it in how he worked, how he cared for, and interacted with people. He acted in love. God calls us to all to act in love as well, as seen in our First Corinthians 13 passage. I know most of us are used to hearing this scripture at weddings, a time of celebration. But today is also a day of celebration. A day where we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The hope we have for a joy filled life after what we have known here … ”

However you prepare for and write your funeral sermons, remember God is with you and will guide you as long as you are seeking, open to and faithful to the Spirit’s guidance. A funeral service can be one of the most rewarding services you’ll lead. You’ll not only share stories of the saint, how God worked and was visible in their life, but you’ll also be able to share the Gospel message to those who may have never heard the good news of Jesus the Christ.