The pastor’s ministry at funerals is one of the most rewarding services he renders. Preaching, teaching, counseling, visitation are all very important, yet the funeral presents a quite extraordinary opportunity to present Christ and the Christian gospel. Times of bereavement open the door for the pastor to spotlight the eternal verities which have thrust him into the Christian ministry—life’s importance and uncertainty, death’s reality and finality, the assurance of the resurrection and immortality, the power of the Cross to forgive and impart eternal life, and the comfort of the Word of God which abides forever though the grass wither and the flower fade.
When hearts are harrowed by grief and minds are stunned by the invasion of death, the pastor comes into lives engulfed by loneliness with the glorious gospel of grace and comfort. Everyone in the family circle has been brought face to face with grim reality. Hearts may now be more open to the Word of the Lord than ever before. A pastor surely has few occasions more propitious to speak the consolations of the Word of life.
At such times a faithful pastor may deepen his hold on the affections of his own people, create a place of esteem in the hearts of others, and generally enlarge the circle of his influence. One funeral frequently leads to the invitation to conduct others for the same family or circle of friends. People desire the services of a minister whom they have learned to know at a time of death. The longer the pastor who knows how to conduct funerals remains in a congregation, the more his funeral calls increase and the richer his ministry of comfort becomes.
The Priority Of Funerals
Aware of the importance of funerals, a pastor will give them priority whenever possible over other duties. Within the limits of the possible he will drop everything else to serve at a funeral. He will postpone other work, cancel plans, return from business trips and vacation spots when this is necessary, and readjust his schedule in order to conduct a funeral. There are few times in life when his people need him as much as they do on an occasion of death.
In any denomination it is the task of the pastor to comfort the bereaved. In some, however, a funeral is classified strictly as a family, and not an official, ecclesiastical service. Families in such churches will behave accordingly by requesting the minister to conduct the service, and by themselves selecting their organist and soloists. The pastor should freely offer his help and suggestions, and the family for its part will express their appreciation and consider the question of remuneration for the service in the light of the fact that the service is not an official service and the pastor is not performing an official task—one to which he is called, and for which he is paid. In such churches the family will not presume upon the pastor, but will among other things show him the courtesy of setting the day and hour of the funeral in consultation with him as well as with the mortician.
Since death keeps no schedule, funerals cannot be scheduled—except after the event. Funerals occur at unexpected times and with no patterned regularity. A pastor may go along for months without a single funeral, and then suddenly be called upon to conduct several in quick succession. The pastor should, therefore, have an abundance of appropriate funeral material at hand and in such shape as can be put to use on short notice. Often he will have very little time for preparation.
Comforting the sorrowing and conducting funeral services are matters that must always proceed with unhurried pace. Few things are less appropriate in times of sorrow than haste. Occasions of death, therefore take sizeable chunks of time from the pastor’s schedule. But they also are a drain upon his physical and spiritual energies. One cannot be sympathetic and empathetic with people in grief without feeling something of oneself drain away. This is not to be lamented.
The pastor will have his rewards, the knowledge of having rendered a vital service, the deepened perception into the basic realities of human existence, and the enduring gratitude of those who mourned and were comforted. For such things as these he must be willing to expend his energies and indeed his life. And where in his ministry can his influence go deeper; where touch the lives of so many so intimately?
What do the bereaved expect from the officiating pastor at a funeral? They expect him to be thoroughly familiar with local funeral practices and to cooperate fully with the mortician to work out a service that will be smooth, harmonious, reverent, appropriate and satisfying. They will trust him to select and use the right Scriptures, hymn lines, and poems; to pray with power and grace, and to speak consolingly and relevantly. Certainly they will be disappointed if he fumbles and stumbles anywhere in the service.
The mourners will expect the pastor to be sympathetic, courteous, and helpful rather than merely efficient and professional. They will, ordinarily, anticipate no undue praise or extensive eulogies of the departed, but they will wish the pastor to show proper respect and appreciation for the deceased. They will hope for the best possible memorial service. After all, each person has but one funeral. There is a strange and frightening finality about this one and only funeral service. Its memories will linger a long time. Let the pastor so conduct it that it will be recalled ever after with satisfaction and appreciation by the relatives and friends of the departed. If the minister can personalize each funeral and give it some distinctive touch, he will approximate the expectations of the mourners.
In his natural desire to comply with the wishes of the bereaved, the pastor must watch and pray lest he enter into temptation. Caught up into the anguish of those who mourn the loss of someone loved and confronted with requests that are sometimes highly irregular and whimsical, he must remember his higher obligation to be loyal to his gospel and pleasing to his God. He may not compromise his message in order to convey words of comfort which are misleading and which obscure life’s ultimate realities. In these delicate situations the pastor will need to exercise both sympathy and courage with a fine sense of proportion and to choose his words with caution and precision. There are few occasions in his ministry where he will need more tact and poised judgment.
Trends In Funeral Practices
While funeral customs vary somewhat across the country, there are a few trends apparent almost everywhere. Of these the pastor should be keenly aware. Funerals are shorter than they used to be, many lasting only from 12 to 20 minutes. Longer ones seldom exceed 30 minutes. Formal funeral sermons have largely disappeared and in their stead pastors give brief talks consisting of Scriptures, poems, and appropriate remarks.
More and more funerals are being held in funeral homes or chapels. Seldom is there a funeral service at the house before the main service at the church or chapel. Opinions differ about holding funerals in church buildings. Perhaps the consensus among ministers is that the funerals of faithful church people should be held in the church building where they have been accustomed to worship and serve, even though it is not as conveniently arranged as the funeral chapel. For others, the funeral home is quite appropriate, though the use of the church building should never be denied to any who wish to use it.
Another trend is to get away from the use of vocal music at funerals and depend entirely on recorded music. When the funeral is in the church house, vocal music is, of course, always appropriate.
The closed casket funeral is becoming a practice. The relatives and friends pay their respects and view the body until the time the funeral service begins, then the morticians close the casket and it is never again opened. This gets away from the rather heathen and grueling custom of letting all the people pass around for a final look into the casket at the close of the service.
There is a growing tendency to request contributions to a favorite charity in lieu of flowers. But a funeral without any flowers, or with very few, seems quite barren and cold. A modest number of wreaths would seem in place, but an excessive number a waste.
A commendable trend is to separate the funeral rites of fraternal and military organizations from the Christian service. The other groups can have their services the day before or the evening before.
The man of God renders the best service when he has been the family pastor and has called on the departed both in health and sickness. However, he will often have to conduct funerals for people he has not known. Let him at once visit with immediate members of the family and find out all he can about the departed and the family wishes for the funeral. Ministers in liturgical churches will follow the funeral liturgies of their denominations, but the nonliturgical minister will build his own service from the data he has gleaned and from his store of funeral materials. After the music, his service may consist of an opening statement from the Scriptures, a prayer, a message, and the benediction.
At the cemetery, the pastor will precede the casket to the grave. He will take his place at the head of the grave, and, at the undertaker’s signal, conduct a brief graveside service consisting of a few verses of Scripture, a committal ritual and a benediction.
Pastors will not ordinarily expect funeral fees from members of their own congregations. They may accept them from outsiders, particularly if the undertaker has included in his bill a charge for the minister’s services. The minister will not only not hurry through a funeral service. He will also try to be at the appointed place at least 15 minutes before the service begins, and he will tarry at the cemetery to express final condolences to the bereaved and to greet friends who linger.
The pastor who has a sense of occasion will not turn the funeral service into an “evangelistic service” or a “revival meeting.” On the other hand, he will not forget that his services were requested, and that he stands before his audience as a minister of the evangel of Christ. He will bring the Gospel to bear on the given situation of death and grief, and on the hopes and doubts of a life to come. He will say what the Word of God has to say about the circumstances which brought them together. What better opportunity to point to Christ crucified as the solution of the mystery of death, and to Christ risen as the only one who has triumphed over the kind of situation in which the bereaved find themselves. Let him point to the Living Lord, to him who is the Resurrection and the Life, as the only solution to the problem of death and the only balm for their grief. Indeed, what else can he say that under the circumstances makes any real difference? Let the true minister of the evangel be done with funeral services which are nothing but rhymed sentimentalisms, pretty poems about lovely flowers and sticky prose pointing out that dying sunsets have rosy golden hues. The living have almost been drowned in the stream of sticky, mawky emotionalism poured from the mouths of pastors who seem unable to speak a relevant word at a time of death. He who fails to speak of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ at a funeral, betrays his calling and throws away a glorious opportunity to speak of Christ to many who rarely set foot in a church.
Where the funeral involves a suicide, or some variety of scoundrel, let the pastor use tact and good sense and speak the Word of the Lord to the living. Where there is reasonable assurance that the departed is now with his Lord, let the pastor bring the monumental comfort and promise of Scripture concerning those who die in the Lord. In any and every event, let the funeral service through prayers, Scripture, message, solos, point to Christ as the only answer to the problem at hand.
Good funeral ethics include a pastoral call upon the bereaved family within a few days after the funeral, with other calls following as may seem appropriate. A planned pastoral call on the first anniversary of the funeral will show a continuing pastoral concern and will leave a special blessing.
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