4 Tips for Crafting Funeral Sermons
4 Tips for Crafting Funeral Sermons
I thought I’d found my groove for funerals. I used to feel calm as they approached. I used to feel competent, I felt I knew exactly what to do. That is, until the pandemic hit.
My first funeral after lockdown was the funeral of Eddy, a sweet elderly member of our church. He died of coronavirus. At Eddy’s funeral, nothing was the same.
The four familiar walls of our church sanctuary were replaced with the windy hill beside the grave. My congregation had drastically shrunk in size: only five people were able to gather that day, besides myself. No one was handing out tissues or hugging the bereaved. Instead, each of us stood alone. The mourners’ faces were hidden behind dark sunglasses and disposable masks.
As I led the service, and as I preached to this group, the service and my message felt all wrong. It felt like the funeral service equivalent of last season’s fashion: it didn’t fit anymore and it didn’t belong. The old prayers didn’t seem to address today’s problems. My sermon, that made zero mention of coronavirus, didn’t make sense and didn’t bring hope. To finish off the service, my final humiliation was that, without the aid of my music director, I was left to lead the singing alone. I started “Amazing Grace” about an octave and a half too high and was left screeching my way through the hymn’s final notes.
At the end of the service, the funeral director approached me and said: “Well, I suppose that is at least a good dress rehearsal for the next one.”
I wish there wasn’t a next one, but there was. We were burying another beloved parishioner the following week. But after Eddy’s service I decided there were some things about leading a funeral, and in particular, preaching at one, that I was going to change.
Keep it Short
My major issue with Eddy’s service that I led back in April, was that it was too long. We were all freezing from the wind, and tired from standing. Halfway through my message, Eddy’s widow needed to sit in a chair. I should’ve been more sensitive to how tired everyone was, and kept my message brief.
It’s possible your next funeral may be held solely at the graveside, just as mine was. Remember that this is not the time and place to preach a 20 or even 10-minute sermon. Try to keep the sermon to one page, or five minutes max, this will keep the service length appropriate for a service held standing outdoors.
Keep it Personal
Think of how differently you speak to a group of five people compared to a group of 100. For a group of five the tone of a speaker is personal, while for a group of 100 the tone is more impersonal. At Eddy’s service I spoke as though many were in attendance, but it was strange to say those words to five people. By the next service, I was addressing the mourners directly. I used “you” statements. I pointed to particular people, acknowledging their presence. I shared personal stories these family members had shared with me in the past.
Perhaps you don’t know the family of the deceased very well. That’s ok. It is still possible to write a personal message, with just a little work.
Before every funeral, I have always gathered a group of those closest to the one who has passed for an informal chat about their loved one. I invite them to share their memories, to tell me what their loved one was passionate about, what they were good at, what they delighted in, even what they hated. I ask for funny stories, and touching ones and memorable quotes. I don’t use everything I gather in this meeting, but I use this time to get to know these people, and to help them share their grief. That way pointing and saying “you” is honest—I know this person I am drawing into my message. I know what they will miss about the one they have lost.
Even in a pandemic it is still possible to hold a meeting like I’ve described. I send out a link on Zoom, and we chat online. I know it's not exactly the same, but it's good enough. It’s enough that by the time the service rolls around I can keep the sermon personally addressed to those present at the service.
Keep it Clear
I’ll never forget my best funeral sermon. It was for a congregant who was famous in our church for repeatedly losing his false teeth. The message I gave at his funeral had everyone giggling as we remembered the time he’d lost his teeth in a cannoli. But what was best about that message, wasn’t the giggles. It was that my message was clear. It had one clear idea: Wayne lost everything, but God never lost Wayne.
How can a preacher know if their message is clear? Well, clarity comes when you can clearly answer this one question: What, in one sentence, is the word of hope you would like these mourners to carry away with them from the service today? Can you summarize your message of hope in one clear sentence? Pandemic or not, it’s important to assess if your funeral message is clear. But when people have lost a loved one in a confusing and scary time, this clear message of hope is more important than ever before.
Keep it Real
As I stated earlier, at my first Covid-19 funeral, I made no mention of the strangeness of the situation we were in. I did not mention the masks, the social distancing, the inability to touch each other. At the end, it felt as though I’d left a huge issue unaddressed.
Now, rather than avoiding the obvious, I make a conscious effort to admit honestly the difficult situation we are in. I pepper my entire service with statements like “this is an especially hard time to lose somebody.” I acknowledge, honestly, my inability to offer what the family wanted: that there could have been a bigger, “better" goodbye inside our church sanctuary for their loved one. To that I say “I wish that too.”
For one family that hoped to farewell their elderly grandmother and great grandmother with a huge celebration, I reminded them of the celebrating God does for his faithful servants. And I tell mourners: “Though we cannot hug one another today, know that Christ is holding you,” and “Though we cannot stand close with one another today, know that Christ is right beside you in this difficult time.”
Preacher, if you are reading this article because you are facing preaching at a funeral in this pandemic: I know that what is before you is a difficult task. These are hard times to preach to and lead God's people. But perhaps, as we face this difficult task, we can find some encouragement in remembering that those same words I offer mourners at my funeral services are also true for us. Though we cannot hug, Christ is holding us. Though we cannot stand close, Christ is right beside us in this difficult time.
Alison Gerber is the former pastor of Second Congregational Church in Peabody MA, now a PhD in Preaching student at Truett Seminary/Baylor University in Waco TX.