By my count, in these 12 years, I’ve traced the sign of the cross on the foreheads of 8 babies. I’ve thrown earth on the caskets of 3 children and buried something like 80 people.
How best to preach funerals?
The sheer demographics of our denomination, aging and graying, makes it an important question.
It’s a question I wrestled with when I first started ministering and noticed the disparity between how I was trained to preach funerals and what my congregation’s expectations were for how I would preach funerals.
In seminary I was taught the sound principle that funeral sermons, as the funeral itself, should proclaim the Resurrection. They should be about God and God’s raising of Christ from the dead.
As a matter of theological principle, I concur.
bristle sigh when families request to release balloons at gravesides, play secular music, show film clips, or read extra-biblical poems, and it depresses me that such requests have only increased with the passing of years.
Why do so many think an email forwarded poem honors or in any summarizes a person’s life?
Why do so many think its appropriate to sum up a loved one’s life by way of exclusive reference to their hobby?
Too many, thinking they’re novel and the first person ever to request it of me, want their loved one’s funeral to be a ‘celebration of their life.’ What they usually mean, whether they’re aware of it or not, is that they want the funeral to be a celebration of the deceased’s life and not a celebration of the life that defeats death.
I get the propriety of what I was taught in seminary but experience has shown me that many have contrary expectations.
Where I was taught to proclaim the Gospel, cultural practices (and prejudices) have taught them to expect a eulogy.
Thus the high premium on the pastor who knew the deceased well as well as the standard by which many funeral sermons are judged: ‘It sounded like you knew him/her well.’
I wish more listeners would grade me instead by saying ‘It sounded like you know the Gospel well’ or ‘It sounds like you know Jesus Christ well.’
But as much as I wish that were the case, it’s not and probably won’t be any time soon, given our post-Christian culture.
So what to do?
And how to do it well?
I’m not at all convinced I do this well, but I offer my approach.
The introduction to the baptismal ritual has us say that through the sacrament ‘we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation.’ This is the lens through which I approach the funeral sermon, helping me look for bits, anecdotes and memories when I counsel and prepare with the family.
What baptism means, I think, is that what’s important about our lives is how they participate in Christ’s life.
Accordingly, in preparing a funeral sermon I try to brainstorm a particular scripture called to mind by the deceased’s story. Often the scripture is not overtly about death or resurrection at all.
Every funeral sermon text need not be Psalm 23 or Revelation 21. Instead the scripture could be a sort of parable or allegory or analogy of the deceased.
For example, I’ve used the Book of Ruth and the Prodigal Son for dysfunctional or unusual families. I like to use the Wedding at Cana for folks with no obvious religious life but who enjoyed life, or ‘Christ our Advocate’ scripture for lawyers.
In doing so, I try to renarrate the scripture in light of the deceased’s life. I think this opens up a way to be faithful to scripture and also to honor the assembled’s expectation. It also alleviates the burden of ‘knowing’ the deceased; in that, rather than the sermon needing to be a eulogy-like litany of facts- too many funeral sermons sound like resumes with resurrection at the end- all that’s needed are a few pregnant images from the person’s life to make the scripture sound contemporary and alive.