Funerals – What can you say?

Written a couple of weeks ago the night after a funeral.  A pastor is usually called to a family’s home the day of or the day after a death, in the middle of their turmoil and grief and family issues.  In the next few days we field calls from different family members with different experiences, memories and emotional agendas, possibly make more visits, and prepare the service and our message.  I’m usually so emotionally exhausted the night after a funeral that I sleep it off for 9-10 hours.  This was written on just such a night.

Choose your words carefully

I did a funeral today for a man in his 40′s, the father of an 8-year-old girl. Funerals are one of the toughest parts of my job as a pastor.  I always feel guilty saying that, as if the stress and struggle of the funeral for me today was anything in comparison to what the man’s wife or daughter are going through.  But funerals are hard in different ways for everyone involved.

Oddly enough, funerals are not hard because I’m uncomfortable with the topic of death.  That’s actually not a problem for me.  As a biologist, I’m pretty pragmatic about the whole life/death cycle.  Instead, I struggle in the preparation for the funeral because I want to find just the right words to comfort the family and others who are grieving.  The words spoken at a funeral can do a lot to put a family on a path towards healing. Conversely, they can do a lot to cause them pain, even if that’s not the intended effect.

At my own grandmother’s funeral the pastor went on and on about how much pain she had been in towards the end of her fight with bone cancer and how good it was that her suffering had ended. I’m sure he was deeply affected by having seen this very faithful woman suffer so much, but I’ll never forget my father’s comment, spouted in anger after the service: “I’ll never forgive that pastor for dwelling on her pain like that!” It was so hard for my dad to be reminded about his mom’s struggle on the day he was hoping to move on to focus on her relief.

So I always feel quite a bit of pressure to say the right things.

It gets even trickier when I’m not sure I can say anything positive about the person’s faith in God or make claims that they are in the arms of Jesus at that very moment. I don’t want to give false assurances. I want to be plain about how fleeting life is and how it magnifies our need for God’s grace and a hope for a life beyond this one. But I’m not going to make promises that someone is with Jesus when their life showed no visible signs of knowing or following Him.  I’m not the kind of pastor that brings that sort of thing up, dangling hell in front of a grieving family to try to get their ticket to heaven punched out of fear, but it’s a careful dance, knowing how much to say and how much not to say.  It’s a question that often keeps me awake the night before a funeral.

One of the best things I feel I can do at a funeral is to bring out the positive parts of someone’s character (that’s easier with some than others!) and then point back to God as the source of those characteristics.  If every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17), then the gifts given to and through this person are no exception.

Family resemblance is sometimes described as “spit-n-image” here in Texas, as in: “That boy is the spit ‘n image of his dad!”  But that phrase originally had so much more power, before being shortened from its original “spirit and image.” What it was meant to describe in the beginning was the way someone resembled someone on the inside (spirit) and outside (image).  I talk about resemblances within the family in front of me, and then I talk about how we’re created in the image of God, and how our positive characteristics are simply reflections of his Spirit and image in our lives.  The closer we grow to God, the more we resemble Him. The more recognizable we are as His children.

The man whose funeral I presided over today loved to do big generous things for others.  He would donate things out of his own pocket and let people believe they came from his company.  He would do things for his mother-in-law and let her assume that his wife was the one behind the blessing.  He was extravagant with his little daughter, treating her to a weekly breakfast out to eat with Daddy, a scavanger hunt for her Christmas present, a luxury suite while they were on family vacation, and a million little things that she will remember as his gifts to her.  Since his cancer diagnosis he even shared the research he did about cancer with other patients in online forums, trying to help them get the best treatment possible. He sometimes encountered other patients who couldn’t afford the same kind of treatment he could pay for.  At least once that his wife knows of (there are probably more) he sent them the money so they could receive treatment even though this was an incurable form of cancer.

This man was extravagant and understated at the same time. He loved doing big things… anonymously.  I would call that a reflection of the Spirit and image of our generous and invisible God.  The One who blesses without asking for anything in return, who creates for the sake of beauty, who loves without condition and forgives without looking back.

How about you? What’s the most helpful or most damaging thing you’ve heard said at a funeral?

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23 Responses to Funerals – What can you say?

  1. Joni Cope says:

    For me one of the worst funerals I ever went to was for a young man that had not been a church attendee and the minister did not know him. There were hundreds of young people there and the only thing the minister spoke of was what was written in obituary (name, age, family, hobby, etc.). And then the minister did what he deemed the most comforting thing to say to the family and recited the 23rd Psalm. I made my children promise that day that when I die they would not recite that psalm.
    Strange as it may seem one of the best funerals was for my 11 month old daughter. Our pastor did know her well, he knew our family well, and made the funeral more of a celebration of her short life and it’s massive impact.

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for being the first comment ever! I agree that impersonal funerals like the first one you described often do more harm than good. What kind of impact could’ve been made there with (as you put it) hundreds of young people present?

      What a bittersweet memory about the funeral of your daughter. You’ve eluded to that part of your history but I’ve never really known the story. I’m so glad that was a healing experience in such a tragic loss. Someday I’ll share with you about my sister who died at about the same age. I know well how even a short life can have a huge impact and be part of a family forever.


  2. Sherry says:

    I agree, We just attended a memorial service for a 43 year old man who had passed away of pancreatic cancer. He left behind a wife and 5 children. The service was very cold.Only a brief mention of God during the service . No words of inspiration for his children. Tom and I agreed that we are beyond blessed to have such a loving and spirit filled church family.
    I left that service feeling very empty.

    You always do such a wonderful job Jessica!

    • Jessica says:

      The only thing worse than a cold, impersonal funeral is one where the preacher tries to threaten everyone with hell and use the loved one’s death as an excuse to do so. Yuck.
      I’m so sorry about your friend who died of pancreatic cancer. Such a horrible disease. I pray we find a cure very, very soon.

      Thanks for all your kind words and comments, Sherry.

  3. Becky says:

    Oh Joni – I can’t imagine loosing a child. I am so sorry – I feel like Joni and Sherry that funerals should be a celebration of the person’s life. That it should give all there the thought of “I didn’t know that about him/her. What a remarkable life.”
    In January we went to ohio for Steve’s brother’s beloved brother…the circumstances were harsh and so many questions left unanswered. But Steve looked up scriptures and sent them to the pastor – even though he didn’t know David – he did a great job with all of the info. It was a crystal clear day in Cleveland, Ohio – I know – now snwo and blue skies…not to say that there wasn’t 8 feet of snow on the groud, but it was as if God was smiling. It was very comforting.
    I have been to some funerals – both a freshman in high college and a friends hubands. Both couldn’t go on inthis world and took their own lives. Heartbreak for everyone left behind…..both services weren’t comofting to the families and all of us there. There was enough pain already – the services could have been something for the families to hold on to.
    Sherry is so right – we are so blessed here. The ministers work so hard at taking the time to find those persoanl stories and encourage family involvement during such a difficult time…. I always am amazed at the courage of the family members getting up and sharing wonderful stories about their loved one. – great love and strength.
    As you all can probably tell – my spelling is horrific – but my emotions are strong.
    I have thought on this all day – and have thought about the first person I saw in a casket (I was 12) – hope those days are somehwat past us….all the way through until David’s funeral this past Jan. This will be a wonderful blog – makes us all think!! That’s AWESOME!!!
    Sherry is so right – Jess you always leave everyone feeling “full” and comforted…..

    • Jessica says:

      Becky, You always have the most encouraging words. Could you just follow me around and make me feel good about myself? I’d pay you!

  4. Jenny says:

    In Feb my beloved Senior Pastor and friend unexpectantly died. He was a trailblazer of Christ’s love and grace in our conference. His service was the largest attended “function” our church has ever held. He would’ve been embarrassed by the attendance. I had the honor of reading letters written by his daughter and son-in-law and then standing next to his son as he spoke. The most touching thing he said was that his dad never brought church home. But yet, his dad was the same person at home as he was in public. He was the first person he would call with a problem knowing his dad would help him find the solution. As a minister-mom, I pray that someday my kids will be able to say uplifting things about both the minister and the mom! Thanks Jess for this :)

    • Jessica says:

      I know the funeral for your senior pastor had to be one of the hardest and most beautiful ever. I’m so glad it was a healing time and that his family was fully involved. I’m also glad that church has you. What a blessing you are!

  5. Ron Saikowski says:

    Funerals can be hard because our society makes them that way. I have become fascinated with funerals in New Orleans where lives are celebrated and people are praising God for His many Blessings in this life and in the hereafter. I have realized over the years there is nothing we can do about changing the course of death. We all shall die one day. Each of us can be a Blessing to others if we so choose.

    When my Mom was killed in the 1979 tornado in Wichita Falls, I found myself brooding and realized I was being selfish by thinking “How could you leave me?” I then realized how self-centerd I was acting and made a mental decision to make her funeral a celebration of her life. I still have many fond memories of my Mom, but I reflect upon those memories as God’s Blessings.

    I want my funeral to be a celebration with the last song sung, being SING OF YOUR LOVE FOREVER!

    • Jessica says:

      I had no idea your mom was killed by a tornado. I know the feeling of wanting a loved one’s service to be a celebration that glorifies God.

      You should tell your family about the desire for that song to be sung at your service. What an awesome ending that would be!

  6. Cheryl Smith says:

    At this point in my life, I have done at least as many funerals as I have done sermons. There is a fine art to them, and I am still honing that craft. What I aim for is to tell the story of the person’s life within the context of Christ. For those folks who did not seem to know or follow Christ, I rely on our bed-rock belief in prevenient grace. I can almost always lift up elements in the person’s life that are obvious manifestations of prevenient grace.

    The worst funeral I have observed? Oh, the list is so long!! Worst funeral where I was not officiating: minister did not know the teenage boy who had drowned. . . . he was inexperienced and uncomfortable. . . .before the service was (mercifully) over, he had taken out his wallet and shown his “Clown” membership card and was talking about his clowning. Worst funeral at which I officiated: At the insistance of the family, there was an “open mike.” (Had I mentioned that I HATE open mikes at funerals??) The ex-wife of the deceased decided to use that opportunity to talk about what a burden this man’s life and death had been on her. (So, can I be forgiven for praying that the Lord would come during that talk and we would all be spared???)

    • Jessica says:

      I’ll never forget some of the funerals we’ve done together. I learned so much from you and Kip about the best practices for helping families feel the grace of God on a difficult day.

      Oh, and that story about the Clown membership card? Priceless. How many pastors do we know that should have one of those? ;)

  7. Jennifer Morgan says:

    Worst funeral ever was this spring at the funeral of a major league pitcher and wonderful family friend. The family had neen warring for years over rights to a substantial inheritance. There was so much hatred between the widow and family members that it was palpable…they would not even sit together. It really cast a sad pall over the day, especially since family was so very important to the man who died.

    Best funeral: the pastor talked about the day of this woman’s death as her “re- birthday” as she began her new life in heaven. What a happy and refreshing thought in the midst of the sadness of losing a loved one .. We all love birthdays! :-)

  8. My father was a commited Atheist, in fact he had written into his will that if any of his children were to give him a ‘Christian’ burial they would be disinherited. So when he died we met with the leader of the local Humanist Society who sat down and talked with us for about 3 hours about dad’s life and passions. His homily at the Crematorium was a beautiful reminder of who Dad was and introduced many people to parts of his life that they had no idea about. The music we chose were all classical and jazz peices that he was fond of. It was a great service…except for one small detail :D
    At the Crematorium we were using they had an electronic curtain that moved infront of the coffin to sheild it from view. As the motor started whirring an organist (who was not present in the small chapel) started playing instrumental to cover up the noise. This was the saddest part of the service, the final goodbye, and suddenly my brother and I were giggling furiously and praying that mom would not recognize that the organist was playing ‘Seek Ye First The Kingdom of God’!!!!!

    In comparison to that, mother’s funeral, which was led by the local Church of England Minister felt like he had pulled ‘funeral service message #5′ from his stack of sermons. The time he spent talking about his conversation with Mom and how she was definetly ready to meet her Maker felt kind of tacky!

    • Jessica says:

      Ha! I guess God wiggled his way in with that musical selection. It’s amazing how many funerals have giggle-worthy moments. My mom and uncle once lost it laughing because their two cousins were looking very stately and somber at their father’s funeral. But they also looked just like secret service agents in their suits and sunglasses. Once my uncle mentioned it, he and my mom couldn’t stay. The giggles were just too powerful. ;)

  9. Heather says:

    For me, the worst funerals are the one that aren’t completely honest. If the minister didn’t know the deceased well, I think it’s always best just to admit that rather than trying to pretend they did. Honestly, though, I have very little memory of most of them…I’m often in my own head, having my own conversation with God. I remember much more about the goings on before and after. I usually go to funerals hoping to find some measure of closure, but that hardly ever happens. I think the only time I can say that I felt better coming home than when I left is after the death of a friend in college. I drove with friends many hours to his home town, and for a few hours after the funeral, a bunch of his friends sat in a circle with his parents on their back porch and told all of our favorite stories. We laughed and cried, and it really did feel like a celebration of life.

    The worst funerals for me are more about the circumstances of the death…baby of one of my closest friends dying during childbirth, my first real boyfriend committing suicide, and my favorite english teacher dying after keeping her cancer a secret. I still can’t even think about Mrs. Davidson without crying. I tried to keep it together at her funeral, but I couldn’t even manage coherent words to tell her husband and son how much she meant to me. It did make me resolute about making my arrangements differently…and if I know I’m going to die, then I’m going to tell people while I can.

    • Jessica says:

      I’d agree that honesty is a must. And the celebration you and your friends had for your college friend sounds so much like what a “wake” was originally supposed to be. People telling great stories about a great life.
      Thanks for these comments.

  10. Kasi Hlavaty says:

    It seems to be a theme here that some of the worst funerals are those where the officiant did not know the person well before death. For some reason when my grandmother died, some of my aunts got together and asked another minister to do her funeral. He did not know her, and throughout the service, he kept calling her Mrs. Sizemore. Her name was Mrs. Seymour. What made it worse is that he talked as if he did know her – when it was obvious to EVERYONE there that he didn’t! I can only imagine how difficult it must be like to officiate the funeral service of a “stranger.” My only advice would be take the time to have a long conversation with the family; take notes if you have to. Then, at the funeral, tell THEIR stories – as if they are theirs, and not yours. You can never fake out the people who actually did know the deceased person, and why would you want to?

    • Jessica says:

      Oh Kasi,
      That “getting the name wrong” thing is a preacher’s worst nightmare. I often write the name of the deceased big and bold at the top of my papers even if I knew them well, because it’s so easy to mess up. And not a mistake that’s easily forgiven or forgotten. I totally agree with the need to listen carefully to a family’s stories and make sure they’re told well.
      Good to hear from you,

  11. Brittany Hamilton says:

    I’m sitting at work reading this and seriously having to choke down the tears. You have such a beautiful heart and such open eyes to be able to see what you did about this man. Those are the reasons why I live today….to serve others…just as Jesus did while here on Earth.

  12. Mandi Richardson says:

    The worst and best funeral ever are the same for me. My mother in law, Janet, was my angel. When we found out she wouldn’t make it I was devastated. I couldn’t imagine life without her in it. She was my “go to” person in life. Saying goodbye wouldn’t be easy and I knew it. After 3 years without her I still want to call or email her. I saved all of her emails and read them when I really need to feel her love. Two weeks before she passed I started writing a eulogy. I wanted to make it perfect so I could express my love for her. I am kind of shy at first and I NEVER speak in public, but I knew I had to get up and speak for Janet. The day of her funeral, my father in law decided that nobody would speak at her funeral. He is kind of difficult and I wasn’t going to fight him about it. I don’t know what happened to make him change his mind, but at the very last minute he gave in and let me speak. I don’t know how I managed to make it through without losing it, but I did it. My knees were a little weak but I made it through. Saying goodbye to Janet was the WORST part and celebrating her sweet life was the BEST part. Here is the eulogy that I read (kinda long, sorry) ~

    Janet was my mother in law. Mother in law defines the relationship, but it doesn’t describe it. You’ve all heard jokes and horror stories about mother in laws. Janet did NOT fit the negative description that we often hear of a mother in law. She was loving, patient, kind, giving and very generous. Janet always told Ferol and I that she got her daughters the easy way. Janet, Ferol and I tried to go on “mother trips” once a year ~ just the girls. Our last trip was to NYC where we saw two Broadway shows and ate and shopped at all the best places. We really enjoyed our time together. Lots of love and laughter.

    Janet lived her life to the fullest; each day abundant with her vibrancy, courage, humor, beauty and respect ~ we are all better people because of her. One of her mantras was ~ “Enjoy! This is not a rehearsal.” That is the way she lived her life. Always enjoying the moment and looking forward to the next party or great adventure.

    The one thing that meant more to Janet than anything in the world, was her family. She was the family’s foundation and she devoted her life to them. Her children and later, her grandchildren filled her with pride. She loved watching them grow and enjoyed their accomplishments, whether large or small. Everyone could depend on her constant love, patience, support and her continual guidance. She was always there for us when we needed her. Her family and friends are a testament to the exceptional person she was. One of Janet’s greatest abilities was making people feel special in the moment. And she was the “hostest with the mostest”. (that is something that she always said) She loved to host gatherings with family and friends. She was the best gourmet cook I’ve ever known. I will surely miss all her great cooking tips.

    She was refreshingly genuine ~ never putting on airs or trying to be like someone else, because she was comfortable in her own skin and comfortable with who she was. She had an uncompromising set of personal standards with which she lived by each day. She was friendly and polite to everybody. I don’t ever recall hearing her talking bad about anybody or ever complain about things. She was very pleasant to be around.

    From the moment I met Janet, she accepted me with an open heart and open arms, extending to me the priceless gift of motherly love, compassion, understanding and care. She was extremely supportive of me. And from our first embrace as mother and daughter-in-law, a relationship of mutual respect, admiration and love blossomed into one of the most cherished relationships I have ever known. She was an inspiration to me, always offering guidance and support whenever I needed it. She taught me many lessons in life that I will never forget. I will truly miss my “mother in love” everyday.

  13. Kelli Dreiling says:

    The most helpful thing I heard at a funeral happened in December 2003 in Sugar Land. What I heard that day pierced my heart and ultimately changed my life. Looking back, I can see God’s hand in the details preparing a way for me, but at the time I had no idea what was coming.

    It was a double funeral for the wife and son of someone I knew from work. Kevin and Trisha’s life ended suddenly in what turned out to be a cold, calculated murder plot. Returning home from dinner one night, all four members of the Whitaker family were shot as they walked through the front door of their Sugar Land home. Only the father and the older of two sons survived. Almost five years later, the surviving son was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death.

    Although their death was very tragic, the funeral was a celebration of their lives. As I listened to their friends speak about their love for Kevin and Trisha, I felt terribly sad and confused. Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen to such wonderful people? With each story told about these two loving and generous people, I sank lower into the pew where I sat as I began examining my own life.

    The Pastor knew the family well and spoke of them dearly during the funeral service while choking back tears. A young lady who was friends with Kevin flipped through his bible as she spoke about trying to find one of his favorite verses to recite. Because he had written so many notes in his bible and underlined various verses, she was unable to pick just one of his favorites. His mother, Trisha, faithfully attended bible study at the church and her friend joked about giving her a perfect attendance award. On many occasions, Kevin and Trisha were routinely the last ones to leave after a church event as they were helping clean up.

    None of it made sense to me; how could this happen? These two wonderful people who were loved and admired by so many shouldn’t have died like that. I started thinking about my own funeral. Who would do the service? Where would it be? I imagined a “rent-a-pastor” staring down at his notes to remember my name as he struggled to say anything meaningful about my life. Rather than talk about my favorite bible verses or my perfect attendance at bible study, my friends would have much different stories to share about my life. The church would have no memory of my service. I didn’t own a bible and I rarely set foot in any church. But that was about to change.

    Over the next few months, a series of events led me to join a bible study at The Woodlands United Methodist church as well as a women’s retreat. On my quest to find out what it was that Kevin and Trisha had, I discovered a new relationship with God as I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. Walking into the church that December day I had no idea just how lost I was. The first verse I underlined in my new bible was Romans 8:28 which says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

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