Funerals – An Open Letter to Christians

Death is a horrible thing to have to deal with.  Sooner or later though, unless Christ returns first, most of us are going to have to deal with the death of a friend or loved one.  While we live in a culture that tends to deny and hide when issues of aging, illness, or death are raised, it is foolish to try and ignore the reality we all have to face.  Frankly, if we were a little more mindful of death, I think our lives would be a lot different, perhaps a lot more meaningful. 

But I digress.

When planning for the funeral of a friend or loved one, or when planning your own, if you are a Christian, there are some things that you should remember and think about.  Communicating your wishes to others prior to your death – both verbally and in writing – will help ensure that your wishes are followed through on.

First of all, a sense of perspective is essential.  This perspective is hopefully grown throughout the life of faith on your Christian walk.  It includes a firm perspective on your own life as a part of the communion of Saints that is confessed in our cherished creeds, such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.  This perspective helps to fight against the exagerated emphasis placed upon our own life – both as we live it, and as others gather to remember it. 

Those gathering for a funeral will undoubtedly be aware of the many fine attributes of the deceased – else they wouldn’t be there.  A service that does nothing but glorify the life of the deceased is horribly askew with our Christian perspective of history and salvation.  Those gathering, while well aware of the deceased’s many virtues, will also undoubtedly be aware of some of their shortcomings.  We all have them.  Nobody is perfect.  A service that extolls the virtue of the deceased in too glowing terms becomes dishonest.  It describes only half of  the person.  Yes, we are saints in Christ and destined for eternal fellowship after death.  But we are also sinners.  We are imperfect.  While describing the shortcomings of the deceased is probably not what most people would expect or want to have happen at a funeral (though I have met a few exceptions!), remembering our simultaneous status as sinner and saint should help keep the glowing descriptions somewhat subdued. 

Perspective as to the nature of death itself should is critical.  Death is not the end.  We have the hope of eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus.  If this is the faith that the deceased confessed, this MUST be proclaimed loudly and clearly during the funeral.  In fact, frankly, this is the most important message to be communicated.  The life of the individual – as well as their death – should point always to Christ and away from themselves.  In fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28), our goal as Christians is never to glorify ourselves, but to glorify our risen Lord and Savior. 

Failure to proclaim the hope of Christianity in Jesus Christ leaves people in the grave.  You can extoll the life of someone all you want.  But if you don’t preach the Gospel, and the implications of that Good News in life *and* death, then everyone in attendance remains at the tomb.  There is no hope.  Only memories of the past. 

Remember that funerals are a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the Gospel, because people come vulnerable, open in a way they rarely ever are otherwise.  The reality of death shakes them out of their routines, rocks the make-believe worlds we all build around ourselves, and stirs in people that desperate hope that the grave is not the end.  The Gospel assures them of this, and more than a few people have been brought to faith by the Holy Spirit during a funeral service. 

Every Christian can be an evangelist through their funeral.  Please pray and consider this as the most important function of a funeral.  People will reminisce and grieve no matter what.  They will gather to celebrate someone’s memory in many small and large ways.  But they won’t hear the Gospel unless you ensure that the minister or presider knows that this is the most important thing you want to hear from them on that day.  If you don’t demand it, there’s no guarantee that it will happen. 

Be proactive.  Don’t let an opportunity to speak in death about the most important thing in your life pass you by.  You’re only going to have one chance to do so.

4 Responses to “Funerals – An Open Letter to Christians”

  1. JP Says:

    Was reading through this old post because of some circumstances here…wondered what your practice/experience has been on funerals performed where the faith of the deceased or the family is not Christian? Do you perform such funerals? If so, under what conditions, if any? Further, is their distinctive content in your sermon at these occasions?

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Hey JP!

    I have yet to do a funeral for someone who explicitly was not a Christian.  I’ve done funerals where their faith was tenuous – where they had been a part of the church in some respect at some point in their lives and the indicators seemed good that even though they were no longer attending that congregation (or any), that they still retained faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  But even those services felt a little weird.

    I can’t imagine a circumstance where I would agree to conduct a Christian memorial service or burial service for someone who was not Christian.  Not unless the point of this – at the family’s agreement – was to use this occasion as a very serious and dire warning to those gathered – and I don’t think there are likely many families who want their deceased’s memorial to serve as a shock and awe moment.  

    If I was approached with a request to conduct a service for a non-Christian, my first question would be why?  Why would the family want me to do a service for someone who did not believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord & Savior?  And when I’m speaking here, I’m imagining someone who is actually actively engaged in another religion (Buddhism, Islam, etc.), or is a publicly avowed atheist.  I’m not speaking of someone for whom there is a reasonable doubt as to whether they might have actually believed.  I’ll happily conduct a Christian burial or memorial for someone who confesses Christ in their last seconds of life at the end of a monumentally awful and evil life.  But for someone who makes no such confession, and has actively lived an appreciable portion of their life in rejection  of the faith, a Christian burial or memorial would be dishonest.  I would liken it to the awful Mormon practice of baptizing the dead into the Church of Jesus Christ LDS – even if the deceased was of another religion entirely.  

    Conducting a funeral under those circumstances dishonors the Christian faith (by pretending that It’s All Good when everyone knows that wasn’t the case), and it dishonors the individual.  I would have to stand up there and either lie or soft-peddle the truth.  While my funerals are always focused on Christ and not the individual, it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where drawing together people intimately associated with a non-believer to hear the Gospel would make the Gospel in any way appealing or attractive.  They’re going to be spending their whole time wondering why the hell they’re gathered in a church when Hubert (or Edna) hated the church, or left the church when they were 20 to become Buddhists.  

    I have conducted funerals where the deceased was definitely Christian, but the family was not necessarily so.  And in each case, I’ve made it very clear what the service will focus on.  They can go and get literally anyone to conduct a memorial service for their loved one.  I’ve been to some truly atrocious examples of this.  If they want me as a Lutheran pastor to conduct the service, then they have to agree to my terms.  And my terms aren’t mine, they’re the historic approach of Christians over the last 2000 years.

    My basic outline for a memorial service is:

    Opening Prayer
    Family Comments/Obituary Reading – no more than three speakers, no more than 3-5 minutes each
    Scripture Reading – family can select, but I may add an additional reading if there isn’t a Gospel/Christ centered selection
    Apostle’s Creed – clearly articulates the faith of the deceased and the faith of the hosting Christian community
    Prayers – I will sometimes solicit prayer requests from the gathered, other times not.  Depends on how many folks are present.  Prayers extend beyond the family and the laying to rest of the deceased to include the larger community and world, reminding us in our grief that we are part of something far larger, and culminating in
    Lord’s Prayer

    Hymns can be scattered throughout if the family desires.  Special instrumental or vocal music, or pop music played via iPod has to be cleared through me first to ensure that it isn’t explicitly anti-Gospel.  It doesn’t have to be explicitly Christian, but it can’t directly contradict in any way the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I’ve had some services where there was literally no music beyond a little gathering and dismissal music.  Other times we’ve had numerous hymns and other special music.  

    The content of the prayers, readings, hymns (if any), and my message is always the resurrected Christ and the hope for life that we have through him both now and eternally.  The deceased provides only the excuse for preaching this to the living.  I don’t eulogize the deceased.  I barely mention them.  I allow the family the opportunity to say a few words specific to the deceased’s life as part of the service, but insist that this be kept to an acceptable length.  There will be countless hours for friends and family to remember the deceased, to cry and reminisce together.  But there is only one opportunity for all those people to assemble and specifically hear the Gospel.  It would be grossly negligent of me as a pastor to focus on anything else at that moment.

    I’m happy to provide more thoughts, but I imagine I’ve shared more than you were actually looking for already

  3. J.P. Says:

    Thanks, Paul, for the helpful post. Someone had contacted me recently because their 7-month daughter had suddenly and unexpectedly died. The mother is a Vietnamese Buddhist, so they had already had a Buddhist funeral. The father is an Australian agnostic. They wanted to do some kind of memorial in Hanoi. Basically I explained to them what I am as a pastor and what I could uniquely bring to a memorial service (sharing from God’s word; Christ-centered message). As I talked with them it became clear that the couple did not want the memorial to be overtly religious. However, what made it awkward was the man’s mother, in from the UK, who is Christian and was concerned that nothing Christian was in the memorial. She lamented over her son’s agnosticism and wanted to have prayers in there talking about heaven and that the baby was in a better place. IT WAS VERY AWKWARD since I knew that I had been asked there only to appease the grandmother. In the end I suggested that it was not appropriate for me to help, since all they really wanted me for was to “MC” the event without anything religious. That does not work for me, and besides, they could get anyone to do that, perhaps someone who knew the child. I think the real issue in all this is what is going on between the son and his mother. I offered to pray with them at the end, and was happy to have them say yes. The prayer was my lone chance to share the Gospel. I hope a seed was planted.Anyways, thanks again for your helpful post. It solidified what I was thinking.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    I had a very similar conversation – and uncovered almost identical circumstances – just last week.  Asking questions is important, and knowing who and what you are about is crucial.  Not always comfortable, but crucial.  All we do is cast seed – and when we are reminded of this fact with an actual barren field, it is a humbling experience.  Thank God for your faithfulness, and we can pray that what was sowed will someday bear fruit!

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