Funeral sermons may seem like a strange subject to think about and even more to write about -- but since I seem to preach at funerals often they are often on my mind. Although pastors of many years have done more, I know, I have done well over 220 funerals in the span of my ministry which started when I was ordained in 2003. For most folks, and rightly so, their contact with a funeral comes at the death of a loved one -- friend, family -- and little thought is given to the service beyond choosing a favorite hymn or piece of music. Again that is what pastors are for, that is part of the ‘job description’ if you will.
Because I live in the town in which I grew up, I am at least acquainted with many of the folks I bury. When I was full-time pastoring in my home congregation, I spoke at the funerals of people who were my mentors in the faith and while it was difficult to see them go, in the great Christian journey we shared the hope in Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who lives and believes in me shall never die.” I was privileged to ‘see them off’.
But many pastors have a greater challenge in that often they are the ‘new kid on the block’. They have recently moved into a new community and they are not familiar with the relationships. In our rural communities the family ties can be legendary and soon, it seems, everyone is someone’s cousin if not in blood, at least in marriage. When I did pulpit supply in Baker last fall (2016), I was asked to preach at five funerals in five weeks. I admit to it being a little overwhelming when I had no connections to anyone. The first gentleman was 101, the second lady was 98, the other three were in their 80s. Most were frail and elderly, but that person was still -- mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, friend -- to all who attended the service. We grieve because we love, someone has written, and so everyone attending the service is declaring that love and respect. It is a daunting task.
Although I don’t really know, I think that larger churches are more accustomed to less personal references in the funeral sermon, whereas rural communities and smaller towns expect at least something personal regarding the one who has died. In Baker that required my speaking with as many people as I could to give me a picture of the person and their life. That involved family, of course, but also friends and other community members when I could find them. My method for writing funeral sermons is to try and to tell a story of the person we are remembering and then weave in scripture and the hope we have in Jesus Christ, the good Shepherd. People are sometimes hesitant to turn their loved one’s story over to an unknown person and that is understandable, but when the information comes from others in the community it seems to work.
The pastor has to maintain a certain emotional distance when conducting the service. I did my dad’s funeral in 2010. People wondered just how I could do that. I wondered myself because I was very close to my father. We were pals. But later I could feel the detachment during the service itself. The emotion would come later. I like a quotation from a book by theologian Joseph Sittler: “You know what has to be done and you know what you can do. Just do it.”
There is a piece of scripture in the Old Testament in Jeremiah. God says, “My word never returns to me unfulfilled. It always accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent.” In the end it comes down to praying for guidance in selecting Scriptures and asking for the words to say and then God does the rest and it will be well in the end.
Over the years I have come to believe funeral sermons are an art unto themselves. They need to be crafted because in this time and place we hear the words of eternal life with greater intensity. Sitting in a pew at a funeral is what the Celts call “a thin place”. We are closer to eternity here than at any other time.
It is an honor to do what I do and it is a trust.