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4 Tips for Preaching Funeral Sermons

How to listen, research, and prepare a funeral sermon.
4 Tips for Preaching Funeral Sermons
Image: Alicia Llop / Getty

I have often said that I would rather officiate one thousand funerals than officiate one wedding. It’s not that I hate weddings, it’s just that I prefer to officiate funerals, especially if they are for unbelievers whom I do not know. Many pastors have told me that that is not their preference, and I understand. The prospect of officiating a funeral for someone you don’t know, especially an unbeliever, can be hard.

I haven’t always had this preference myself. In fact, there was a time when I would have avoided such a task. Deep down I had this fear that the deceased’s family would certainly expect and even insist that I preach their loved one into heaven.

Then it happened. I heard something. It was just one sentence whispered into my ear, but it helped prepare me to officiate what is now over eight-hundred funerals for unbelievers in the past twenty-five years.

I was in my first year of pastoral ministry and had officiated less than a half-dozen funerals for some of the elderly believers in our church family when I received a call from one of our dear ladies whose husband had died suddenly. She requested that I officiate his service and I agreed to do so. I would soon learn from some of the family members that the deceased was certainly not a believer, which meant that this would be my first service for an unbeliever.

As I prepared, I became rather anxious. What will I say? Surely, they will expect me to say, “He’s in a better place now.” But I couldn’t say that—and I didn’t. After everyone had passed by the casket, the spouse came to me, hugged me, and leaned in to whisper in my ear, “Thank you for not trying to preach my husband into heaven.”

This changed everything for me. If this widow had the courage to face the sad reality that her husband died outside of Christ, I should have the courage to boldly proclaim the gospel of Christ without being shackled by fear.

I eventually decided that officiating funeral services for unbelievers was something that I wanted to specialize in. I visited the funeral homes in my community and surrounding area and I invited the directors to call on me for such occasions. I read everything I could get my hands on about officiating funerals, however, they proved to be very little help when it came to unbelievers. So, I began to build my own resources and sharpen my skills. And while I am ever seeking to improve, here are a few things that I have learned and that continue to serve me well.

Believe It: People Attending a Funeral Really Are Thinking About Their Own Death

After taking time to respectfully eulogize the deceased, which is often brief, I then direct my comments to those who are alive and present, those who are thinking about their own death. I recall former FOX commentator, Bob Beckel, commenting, “Baby boomers like me are starting to see the big black wall at the end, and they wonder what happens after that.” I believe he’s correct.

How do I know that people attending a funeral will be thinking about their own death? Because the Bible tells me so—and so does Rolling Stone and AARP.

The wisdom writer states: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecc. 7:2, ESV). John Wesley’s commentary on this verse interprets “the living will lay it to heart,” as, “will be seriously affected by it.” Sitting in a funeral home brings death into sharper focus.

I have also been helped greatly by reading interviews in Rolling Stone and AARP. The interviewer almost always includes questions like, “Do you ever think about dying? Are you afraid of dying?” You see, the interviewer knows that death is something people think about, even when they are not at a funeral.

At the age of 65, musician John Mellencamp was asked in an AARP interview, "what's left" for him in life. Mellencamp said, "I intend to make my ending good. I'm hoping it's one of those long, lingering deathbed conversions. A lot of people go, 'Oh, I hope I just die quick.' Not me. I need time to put things right." This is a man who, amidst fame and success, is thinking about death.

William H. Auden once said, “Death is like the distant roll of thunder at a picnic. We’re aware of its impending approach, but we’d rather not think about it.” But at a funeral we do. So, use this reality for all it is worth.

Understand what ‘I don’t want a Religious Service’ Often Means

I have made the deliberate effort to build a foundation of trust with the funeral directors I serve. They continue to call me because they know they can count on me to serve their clients well. Often, I receive a call from a director informing me that the family doesn’t want a religious service. It took me awhile to understand just what they meant, but now I know.

I recall one occasion when I was meeting with a family, the sister of the deceased sat there staring at me, getting visibly more frustrated by the moment. She finally couldn’t restrain herself any longer. She turned to me and angrily said, “I want to know what you’re going to do. I know how you preachers are. You take opportunities like this to ambush people.” She had a bad experience, and I was determined that she does not have another.

I’ve certainly been to funeral services that felt this way. Emotional invitations given for people to come and kneel at the casket. A tag-team group of up to four preachers who often become unhinged, seeming to ignore the fact that a grieving family is experiencing a sadness they didn’t know even existed.

I intentionally speak at a funeral service unlike how I would speak to my congregation on a Sunday morning. I speak softly, with a desire to comfort. This allows me to speak gospel truths in a disarming manner.

The sister sat through the entire service with her arms folded, and as people filed past the casket at the end, I waited, anticipating her displeasure. Instead, she reached for my hand, and with tears in her eyes she thanked me. I had proclaimed the gospel to someone who didn’t want a religious funeral service, and they thanked me.

Pay Attention to the Song Selections

I was asked to officiate a service for a 21-year-old man who had hung himself to avoid returning to prison. Upon meeting with the family, they made me aware of the songs they had selected for the service. It became crystal clear to me that they had put a lot of thought into choosing these songs, and that they were a soundtrack of their lives, as well as that of the deceased. Not being familiar with the songs, I listened to each one, carefully going over the lyrics. As I listened, certain things stood out to me.

First, there was the song “I Tried,” with lyrics like:

I tried so hard, can't seem to get away from misery
Man, I tried so hard, will always be a victim of these streets
It ain't my fault 'cause I try to get away, but trouble follows me
And still I try so hard, hopin' one day they'll come and rescue me

Then there was the song “Crossroads,” with the line:

Grudge because there's no mercy for thugs

Then there was “Sail On”:

Tomorrow’s not promised, I took advantage of the moment

I never was happy here, yeah and you know this.

I was discontent like an instrument that had no one to play it.

Then there was “I Miss My Homie”:

Somebody took my boy from me
My best friend's gone
And I'm so all alone
And I really miss my homies

And finally, there was “See You Again”:

It's been a long day without you, my friend
And I'll tell you all about it when I see you again

I explained to the packed room of Millennials and Gen Z’s that songwriters are people who have a way with words, and when we don’t have the right word’s their lyrics often give expression to how we feel inside. I shared with them what I had heard in each song.

In “I Tried” I heard a longing for relief from all the misery in life. In “Crossroads” I heard the question: Is there any hope for me, can I get a do-over? “I Miss My Homie” expressed lament over the senseless death of his friends, while “See You Again” conveyed the desire to see one another again.

I then pointed out that these songs had successfully echoed our inner ache for something better as a result of living in a broken world full of trouble and pain. Then I asked them if they were aware that the Bible addresses each of these longings? That seemed to pique their interest.

For trying harder to get away from the misery, I told them what Jesus said: “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Looking for a do-over? The God of the Bible is rich in mercy. I gave a brief synopsis of Jesus treatment of the woman caught in adultery. For hope in the midst of the finality and irreversible nature of death I once again turned to the words of Jesus: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” And regarding the longing for reunion and continuation, I offered a picture of God’s future from Revelation 21:1-4. I added that in spite of our differences, I think we would all agree that this sounds like something we all would want.

At the conclusion of the service I was gratified by the response. One lady told me that considering the tone that the songs had set, she had no idea how I was going to work the gospel in, but that I had succeeded. That was my goal!

Become a Treasure Hunter of Good Quotes

Over the years, one of my favorite hobbies has been treasure hunting, especially with my trusty and faithful metal detector. When a homeowner tells me that someone has already searched their property, I’m not discouraged. I always find something they missed. Knowing there were coins out there just waiting to be unearthed was the fuel that kept my search engine going.

I mentioned earlier, publications that include interviews with celebrities or very public people. These interviews often yield treasures that provide the preacher a solid launch pad.

A few years back in an interview published in AARP, actress Lily Tomlin (born in 1939) recalled a time when she was four-years-old, visiting her grandmother in rural Kentucky. A little girl had died and they laid the body out in the house. "Everyone was oohing and aahing over her," said Tomlin. "Death didn't make sense to me then, and it doesn't make any more sense now." This is gold!

When I receive a call from a funeral director requesting me to officiate a service for someone I don’t know, it is almost always because the deceased had no church or pastoral connection, a lack of connection that often goes deep throughout the family. This means that the attendees for the service will be predominately made up of unbelievers. And while approximately 151,600 people die every day in the world, the deceased is someone they know and love, and they face a Lily Tomlin moment. Death doesn’t make sense.

I have used this quote quite often and found it to be a helpful lead-in to explain where death came from, and that because of Jesus Christ the enemy of death has a limited shelf life.

I hope you see that your local funeral home can be a mission field, and I hope that some of what has helped me will also help you. I would love to share more but I must prepare to officiate a wedding.

Van Morris is pastor of Calvary Christian Center in Mount Washington, Kentucky, and a regular contributor to PreachingToday.com.

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