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Difficult Funerals

Lessons from the Journey

As I write this article I am listening to a song by Casting Crowns titled “Only Jesus,” and I’m immediately brought back to October 5, 2018, when it was sung at the last funeral service I led. Karen was 33 years old. A five-year survivor of a double lung transplant she needed because of cystic fibrosis, she passed away as a result of the West Nile virus. Her funeral was the second one I officiated in just six weeks for someone under 36. The first was for Curtis, who passed away after a stroke.

In my relatively short time in ministry, I have experienced a number of difficult funerals. Of course, we can debate what constitutes a difficult funeral. A funeral of someone who was 80 years old can be just as difficult to lead as the funeral of a young person. But when I think of difficult funerals, I think of heart attacks at a young age, accidents, rare diseases, strokes, suicides, children not waking up, miscarriages, or the death of a younger person—all of which I have experienced.

When thinking about these funerals, I am amazed at how each one is drastically different from the others. There really is no prescription for what pastors should do in these situations. Each pastor will approach these situations differently as well, depending on one’s personality and one’s connections with the deceased and their family. But one thing I have found to be universally true about these funerals is that they will connect you to that family more strongly than anything else you might experience with them. That is powerful. People in crisis reach out and are more open to you as a pastor in these situations than at any other time in their lives. This is a major responsibility—and a major opportunity.

Because there is no formula for what pastors “should” do in these situations, I’ll share what I’ve found to be most beneficial before, during, and after the funeral.

Pre-Funeral Service: A Ministry of Presence

The phone rings. “There’s been an accident; can you come immediately?” If you’ve gotten such a call, you know the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. I encourage any pastor who gets that kind of call to drop whatever you’re doing and go immediately to be with the family, even if it means driving three hours to the hospital. If you cannot be there immediately, do your best to get there as soon as you can.

Pastoral ministry is a ministry of presence. When families call me to come, it’s not because I am special in and of myself, but because of whom I represent. They call because they need God’s representative to be there with them—to weep with them, to be a shoulder to cry on, to be a listening ear. To laugh with them. To pray with them and for them. To bring God’s word.

The moments when family and friends are coming together in a tragedy are special moments. Pastors are not there to fix anything with words. Nothing will bring back the loved one they have just lost. We are there to be God’s presence with them. Don’t rush anything. Take your time; allow for grief. Try not to be the “one with all the answers,” but be there to pray when it is appropriate and to read a passage from Scripture offering the hope and comfort we have in Christ.

In the days following, touch base often with the family. In some ways you become one of the family members; use this privilege wisely. Take time to visit with family and friends. Take time to sit and listen to their stories. Everyone present has their own experience with the person, and each one is unique. Listen well to how people interacted with the one who has passed away. Take all that you are hearing and incorporate it into the funeral service.

When the time is right, sit down with the family to “officially” plan the service. Sometimes families have passages they want to be read and people they want to be involved. Other times they are so hurt and at a loss that they don’t know where to begin. For many, it might be the first time ever having to plan a funeral service. Take the time to ask questions about the person—about their faith life, their interests, their relationships. If they need suggestions for songs or Scripture passages, don’t be afraid to offer them, but quite often the family will have a lot to choose from. Encourage the family to prepare a time of memory sharing and maybe a slideshow.

Take all that you have learned in these visits to shape your funeral service accordingly. If you are given the task of preparing a sermon, recognize that there will be many people at the funeral service who may never attend church but who now are in the church searching for some form of comfort and a word of hope. It isn’t our job to preach anyone into heaven, but we can present the gospel message in a clear and powerful way. Take what you have learned about the deceased and incorporate that into your message. If she was a person of faith, talk about how her faith carried her through her sickness, or how she lived by her faith in her work and everything she did.

Sometimes you might be asked to do devotions at the funeral home with the family the night before the funeral service. I take time to read Scripture and to pray with the family. I have learned to give a warning: “There will be a lot of people coming and they won’t know what to say, and sometimes people will say some really dumb things. Please take it with grace as they often mean well, but just don’t know what to say.”

The Funeral: Bathed in Prayer

Before a funeral service I find it helpful to have an elder of the church pray with me and for me. Immediately before the service I will read a Scripture passage and pray with the family.

While you lead the service, try to be sensitive to the needs of the family members. Pray for those who will be sharing memories. Allow yourself to grieve as you lead the family and friends through the funeral service. This can be challenging, but it is okay to show that the person meant something to you, the pastor, as well. I have found that no matter how strong I try to force myself to be, the emotions hit when you least expect it. That’s okay. It’s good to show how Christians grieve—“that [we do] not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, NRSV), but with eternal hope in Jesus Christ.

The reception after the service is a good chance to encourage people to share their memories of the person who has passed away. It is a great opportunity to meet people who are family members or friends from the community. Encourage the family to visit and to laugh and cry together remembering the life of their loved one.

After the Funeral: Connect, Reconnect, and Connect Again

A lot of emotional energy gets poured into any funeral service, and even though I’m an extrovert, the process is draining. After the service and the reception, I have found it very important to reconnect with my wife and my family. I have made it my practice to spend time with my children after a funeral and then to get a babysitter and go out with my wife to “debrief.”

Self-care for the pastor is vitally important during these challenging times. Find ways to recharge your batteries. If it means sleeping in the next day and going in late to the office, do that. If it means taking a day off to connect with your family, go hiking or biking or running, or read a book for fun, then do that. Find what energizes you and do it.

It’s also important to have a conversational outlet. If you have a dear, trusted friend you can open up to and confide in, connect with him or her. If you have a counselor you visit regularly, it might be good to touch base. A counselor can help you unpack the emotions you’ve had to bottle up while you led a family through a challenging time.

After the service, after all the busyness has calmed down, reconnect with the family within the first month. If you are able, check in with the family on important dates, such as birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries. If you can’t do that, on your next visit ask family members, “How was it for you on that day?” Remember that it’s okay for them not always to have to talk about how they are doing. But allow them to share as they are able. Quite often, family members will tell you as pastor their frustrations, their loneliness, and their hurt and anger. Walk with them through this journey of grief. It is a healing process that takes a considerable amount of time.

There is no prescription for what to do when people are grieving. This isn’t meant to be a checklist of things you should do when tragedies happen. In fact, when I asked a mentor how he handled these situations, or what advice he would give, he said he didn’t know. “You just do it,” he said. Trust the Holy Spirit to lead you through as you lead the family, to equip you to minister to those in crisis. Trust and lean on the Spirit, and God’s presence will be with his people.

The Uniting Church in Australia offers a resource for praying with a family returning home after the death, burial, or cremation of a loved one. It includes these introductory notes:

“Particular pastoral needs may arise when mourners return to the home they shared with the deceased, or the home of the deceased which must now be prepared for other occupants. There may be an intense feeling of emptiness both in the people and the place. In case of sudden or tragic death in a particular place, there may also be a sense of darkness needing to be dispelled.

“This service is based around the theme of kindling light in the darkness (see Psalm 139:12) and of welcoming Christ to the home. The Easter Candle may be brought from the church, and other candles lit from it. The service may begin with the house lights reduced or dimmed, the lights being fully switched on as the service proceeds.”
— Submitted Rev. David MacGregor, from United in Worship 2, Uniting Church in Australia. Used by permission.