One of the hardest tasks in the professional ministry is conducting funerals. Unlike just about any other type of service you can perform in the ministry, where you have a great deal of advance notice to prepare, funerals typically need to be arranged and conducted within a very short time frame. You also very often find yourself dealing with people who are in very emotional states of mind, and who are so stunned by the variety of emotions that they are experiencing that they are not able to give you very much input into the planning of the funeral service.
Fortunately, there is a trend among people to do a great deal of pre-planning of their service. One thing many pastors encourage their congregants to do is write down instructions for what they would like at their funeral services. At the very least you want to know what their favorite Bible passages are, what hymns or other music they would like performed, if there are any people who they would like to do readings or even to speak.
The greater likelihood though is that you will be called to do a funeral for someone who has done no preplanning for the service at all. If you are called to perform the service of someone you know pretty well, this may not be a problem If you are doing the funeral of a stranger though, this can be a real challenge.
The Funeral Process – A Quick Overview
Typically when a person dies, a family member or close friend will contact a funeral home and make arrangements for the body to be picked up. They will also set an appointment for an arrangement conference. Unless the deceased had preplanned and prepaid for their own funeral, it is at this conference that all the plans of the funeral (except for the specifics of the service) are made. Typically a coffin will be selected, as well as a vault (if the deceased is going to be buried or entombed in the ground, if being placed in a mausoleum this would be unnecessary). If the deceased is being cremated, very often a coffin is still purchased, as well an urn to hold the ashes after the cremation. A grave will be selected (though in point and fact many times all the family will do is tell the funeral director what cemetery they want to use, and the director will then make arrangements with the cemetery). If the deceased is being cremated, a decision will have to be made as to what the final disposition of the ashes will be. Some families will want them buried in a cemetery, others may wish them scattered, others may want them in a Columbarium (this is like a cemetery mausoleum, but just for placing urns in niches in a wall). The funeral director also is typically the one who will place the order for flowers from the family and will take care of filing the death certificate and placing obituaries in the local newspaper. It is also usually their job to contact a member of the clergy to conduct the funeral service if the family wants a religious service, and if the deceased did not belong to a church or have a connection with a Minister.
Typically, a funeral will consist of three parts:
1.) A time of visitation. This is usually held at the funeral home. This is a time when family and friends of the deceased gather together, to offer each other condolences and support. In some areas of the country, this time of visitation (also known as a wake) could take place over two consecutive evenings. In some areas, it is only common to have it take one, and in still others, the visitation may be limited to one or two hours before the actual service. Very often, if the deceased belonged to a church, the visitation will take place in the church itself, but this is not a hard and fast rule.
2.) The Funeral Service. This can take place either at a church or at the funeral home. Most of the time the coffin of the deceased is present, though it is becoming more and more common for the funeral service to take place AFTER the body has been buried or cremated. In cases like this, the funeral service is actually a Memorial Service.
3.) The Committal Service. This is a SHORT (typically no longer the 10 minute) ceremony that takes place at the graveside or wherever the remains are placed. This typically just consists of a few prayers and one or two scripture readings. UNLESS there was not a regular funeral service beforehand. If that is the case, the committal service may be extended to include a short eulogy, and perhaps some more prayers, scripture readings, and witnessing by family and friends of the deceased. This is usually called a Graveside Service.
Generally but not always, there is some sort of luncheon or meal for the family and friends of the deceased immediately after the Committal Service. Typically the presiding clergy will be asked to offer a grace before the meal.
What To Do To Prepare For a Funeral:
If the deceased was a member of your church and you know the family, it makes it easier for you and them if you meet with them at the funeral home when they meet with the funeral director to plan out the logistics of the funeral. That way you know all the details of what the family desires up front so that there is no misunderstanding about when, where, and how the service is to be performed. If you did not know the deceased or the family though, you will probably have to meet with them after they have arranged the service with the funeral director. In cases like this, you need to keep in close contact with the funeral director so that you have no scheduling problems (i.e. the funeral is scheduled when you are also supposed to be performing a wedding or you have another time conflict). You each need to be clear as to where the ceremony is to take place, (your church or the funeral home) where the Committal is going to take place and if there is going to be a meal afterward that you are expected to attend.
When you meet with the family, start out with a word of a prayer, then ask them what type of service they had in mind. If your church/denomination has a funeral ritual service that most people of your congregation use, you can suggest this to them. It is a good idea to bring along a few copies of your typical funeral service, as that makes it easier for the family to decide what they would like to do. It also makes it easier for you as you will know how many songs or hymns you should plan for, and where you would have places for family and friends to participate in the service, such as doing some of the readings or leading prayers.
Here is a link to the standard funeral service that I typically use. A Contemporary Funeral Service
One printed resource that you may wish to invest in is A Funeral Manual: By Perry H. Middle, published by William B. Everyman Publishing of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This book contains copies of the funeral services of most of the major mainline Protestant denominations, as well as many helpful hints for conducting a funeral.
Some families may not want to have such a formal service as such. Then you will have to decide if you are willing to do informal funeral services or not. When I do an informal service, which to be honest is very rare because most of the members of my church prefer the traditional form of service, I let the family tell me what they want to see in it. Typically it would consist of a short time of prayer, maybe a few readings from scripture or other sources that the deceased found meaningful in life, perhaps a short meditation by me, and a time for the people to share thoughts and stories about the life of the deceased.
No matter if the service is to be informal or not, at this meeting with the family, I try to get as much information about the deceased as I can. This helps to prepare the service but also gives the chance for the family to begin the grief process. In the sharing of the stories, they are very often able to begin to find some healing.
I also try to get them to share with me any special scriptures that the deceased found meaningful, as well as any other readings. We talk about the music that they want and any other special requests. If at all possible, I always try to honor their requests for special music or readings.
Before this meeting ends, I do try to share with the family what I think that the main thrust of the funeral message is going to be. This is not always easy, especially if the family doesn’t share with me much about the deceased and their faith. Very often you will find if you do funerals on a regular basis that the families and friends are not all that open to sharing stories or even making suggestions about music and such. In cases like that, you may have to make the suggestions yourself.
This also makes it really hard to put together a funeral sermon. It is much easier when you know a great deal about the deceased. Sometimes though you have to use a “generic” type of sermon, that doesn’t require you to say much about the deceased at all, but does speak about the Christian faith (if of course you and the deceased are Christian), and can celebrate the faith and the life of the deceased.
Granted, sometimes the deceased didn’t do much to celebrate, and indeed occasionally you may be called to officiate at the funeral of someone who you think perhaps did not find salvation. NEVER suggest during a funeral sermon that the deceased died without a saving faith in Christ. In all honesty, you can never say that for sure. You can never be sure what is in someone’s heart. You, of course, should not lie and overly praise someone whose life was not especially praiseworthy, but neither should you paint such a bleak picture of someone that the people who attend the service think that the deceased was damned to hell. Concentrate on whatever positives you know, and definitely speak of the great truths of the Christian faith, that God’s love is there for all, and salvation is freely available to all who claimed Christ as their savior.
Doing funeral sermons can be a difficult chore. As I stated earlier, it is much easier when you have a great deal of information about the deceased. There are many resources available to give you ideas though on appropriate funeral sermons. As I mentioned earlier, A Funeral Manual aside from having sample services also has some model funeral sermons. You may also find helpful the following:
A Contemporary Handbook for Weddings & Funerals & Other Occasions edited by Aubrey Malphurs & Keith Willhite, published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Funeral Homilies Edited by Liam Swords, published by Paulist Press
The Word is Life: An Anthology of Funeral Meditations published by the CSS Publishing Company Inc. Lima, Ohio.
When preparing the Funeral service, keep in mind that the typical funeral service lasts 30 – 40 minutes, unless you are from a high church tradition where communion is served during the service. Then it could go about one hour. It is important that you and the funeral director keep each other appraised as to how long the service should last, and when the funeral procession needs to be at the cemetery or wherever the Committal is going to take place.
The Funeral Service
Conducting the funeral service is pretty much like conducting any other type of service. Be on time of course, and in fact it helps if you are there 25 – 30 minutes before the funeral begins. In the Milwaukee area, the funeral directors traditionally ask the officiating minister to take the family to a side room before the coffin is closed for the final time, and lead them in a moment of prayer. Make sure the musicians and readers are all there, and that any CD’s or tapes required for music are cued up and ready to go.
If you are not typically a manuscript preacher, that is, if you typically preach without using a printed script or note cards, you may wish to reconsider that practice for when you perform a funeral, especially if you know the deceased real well. The problem is that you too are grieving, and may have a tendency to forget what it was you were planning on saying. For a typical Sunday, usually, your congregation would forgive you if you mess up a sermon. You do not want to take the chance of it happening though at someone’s funeral. I always use either a printed manuscript or at least a really good outline of my sermon when conducting a funeral. The family and friends of the deceased are already suffering enough, and you don’t want to inadvertently add to their sorrow.
If you are from a faith tradition where it is not always typical for you to wear vestments of any type during a worship service, you may wish to inquire what the family wants you to wear.
Should you Charge to Perform a Funeral?
In many faith traditions, such as my own, it is not an acceptable practice to charge to conduct the funeral of a member of your congregation. For people outside of your church though, it is customary to receive an honorarium. The funeral director will know what the typical one for your area would be. Usually, they add that on to their bill and pay you directly. In the Milwaukee area, the typical funeral honorarium is $100 -$125. But of course, it could be very different in yours.
IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO RECEIVE ANY SORT OF PAYMENT, YOU NEED TO TELL THE FUNERAL DIRECTOR ASAP. As I stated earlier, they typically add a charge to their bill for the officiating clergy. If you don’t tell them that you don’t want to be paid, they will probably charge the family automatically. Let them know up front what you expect and you will save everyone a lot of trouble and embarrassment.
The Committal Service
At the graveside, or wherever the remains of the deceased are being laid to rest, it is typical to conduct a short 5-10 minute Committal Service. This usually consists of a few short scripture readings, a committal prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving for the life of the deceased, and a benediction. A slightly modified version of the traditional committal prayer I normally use goes like this:
UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother/sister Name, and we commit his/her body to its final resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the remains of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.