Funerals are different to memorials. A funeral will end with a cremation or a burial, whereas a memorial will end with the service. If the family requests a viewing, it is best to do that at the funeral parlour before the service. Funerals are more sombre than memorials in any event because of the presence of the coffin. As a general principle the Pastor should guide the family, but not impose his will or forbid them from mourning in their own way. In addition, in our country, the way in which different cultures mourn varies markedly and Pastors need to honour these cultural differences without compromising core beliefs. Eastern and African tradition generally tends toward more family involvement, a series of pre funeral and post funeral meetings, and large family gatherings at the home. Western tradition is normally more private and centres around the funeral/memorial and intimate moments with very close family.
- Upon hearing news of the death.
Response should be immediate. Words of wisdom are not the order of the day; your presence is. Your comfort is. You might be at a loss as to what to say, that’s fine, your absence will speak louder than you can imagine. Don’t jump straight into funeral arrangements as you arrive either. Offer help with meals, hug, reassure your support etc. Upon leaving the home offer to pray for all those present – It’s expected and if you don’t you will come across as uncaring in the eyes of some. They will bring up requests about the funeral, if they don’t, a casual comment before you go saying: “If you need any help with funeral arrangements of any kind, music, facility etc, let me know…” Don’t presume that they want you to officiate at the funeral; they don’t need that pressure.
- Practical things that need to be spoken through:
– funeral arrangements
– legal matters
– costs ( NCF charges nothing at all for hall, music or ministry)
- 3. The church service:
- some general comments:
– Movements in the meeting:
It’s good to think through when people will arrive and when the coffin will arrive (before, or in some cases with a procession). Think through whether you want that in silence or with music. Encourage the speakers to sit close to the front so that there are not long awkward silences. To most people, it is distasteful to have tea with a coffin lying in the building. A fitting and honourable goodbye should be either the people or the coffin leaving the building at the end of the service. If the speakers are briefed well, it saves you getting up between each speaker to call the following one.
Your posture in the meeting will speak as loud as your words. If you nervously pace up and down before the meeting you will put the crowd on edge. A Pastor who is relaxed, but respectfully formal, smiling, yet caring, is what’s required for such an occasion. Generally this posture comes from your inner world being in that condition. However, an audit of your body language is good even for the most experienced of pastors.
– Handling tributes:
You can save yourself heaps of pain and discomfort during the meeting if you brief the speakers well in advance. Without instructing them you can point out that a good length for a tribute is between 3 and 5 minutes.
A “western” funeral/memorial that extends for longer than an hour begins to stretch the average attendee. If it goes for one and a half, or two hours, it should have a sequence of varying components like: songs, pictures, tributes, poems, and reflections, rather than a few extra longwinded contributions. Eastern and African funerals generally have more latitude than the above, but the principles of honouring the family, glorifying Jesus, and shorter contributions rather than long ones still applies. The main sermon ideally should be about 20 minutes. It takes a lot of skill for a preacher to preach well with a time constraint, so practicing the message (with a clock) is a good idea.
– Addressing family:
The pastor who ignores the grieving family and focusses exclusively on the preach or the deceased is missing a moment. Looking at the family in the eye, addressing them by name, in kind words or in prayer is a great expression of The love of the Father”.
Saying things like, “bring in the body” or “corpse” or the use of “suicide” or any slang derivatives of the above should be avoided. Whatever you might achieve for effect with strong words like that will be far outweighed by the offence that you cause to some sensitive listeners. You can call the deceased person by their name, or use alternative phrases like…”please stand for the procession” etc.
- pre service:
The setting of the service greatly effects the mood of the service. The selection of pre-service music, lighting, the seating layout, and the use of multimedia needs to be thought through. With the passing of a believer, there is gladness but sincerity; there is joy for the departed, but pain for the remaining. So light (not flippant), happy (not loud) is a healthy environment to create. Check your sound system, the selection of songs with the band, and chat to the band beforehand (crying musicians are not helpful). Your dress needs to be appropriate. Sometimes the departed has requested a dress code and older people and unsaved families are generally more formal. A safe rule is to slightly over dress when compared to the average person there, and if you are not sure, ask the family what they want. I generally use a jacket and a tie. If for some reason you are very emotional on the day, get a fellow elder to be on standby, it is fine for you to show emotion, but you need to hold the meeting together, you can’t disintegrate.
The welcome needs to be warm, sincere and with a smile. I like to bring Jesus into the picture from the outset, i.e. you are in God’s presence and God blesses those who mourn… or a comment about Gods loving arms etc…
Outlining the sequence of events is helpful, particularly for the un-churched.
Something like we want to:
1. Give thanks to God for life and faith
2. Draw comfort from scripture as we understand Gods view on life and grieving
3. Express love to the family
4. Close the chapter of the person’s life on earth with dignity and honour
- Give thanks: this we do through prayer and singing. The singing should not be as long as a Sunday service, as people are not in a position to worship for that long. Most families like to choose the songs. Words to help the congregation sing and are a good idea. A strong worship leader always helps.
- Draw comfort from scripture: preaching at a funeral should reflect something of the departed’s life. If you didn’t know the person, find out their hobbies, likes, and favourite sayings etc… and weave that into your message. There is nothing worse than a preacher who disregards the deceased.
- Expressing love to the family: this is done by allowing tributes and by praying for the family. The family should decide who shares, but you might like to regulate the length of this part of the meeting. You shouldn’t force people to speak, and neither forbid speakers, you might need to pick up the pieces if something inappropriate is said, or shorten your message if a relative goes on forever. If a close member is nervous, but clearly wants to participate, you could offer to read something they have written for them. I always encourage people giving tributes to write it down and read it through once privately. It helps keep them shorter and helps if tears begin to flow. If anger is expressed or a clearly heretical comment, the pastor should not rebuke, but rather in a loving, confident way, present the truth when the time arises.
- Close the chapter of life on earth with dignity: this is done with prayer, if a coffin is present a committal is appropriate or a benediction.
– Committal: The committal has it’s theology in spirits ascending to heaven and bodies back to the dust as well as Jesus’ words that He has made arrangements for our journey and entry into heaven. Get people to stand and an example of a committal is this: “Knowing that the departed soul of … is in the hands of almighty God, our loving Redeemer and the Rewarder of those who diligently seek him, we now commit his body to the ground. Dust to dust, earth to earth and ashes to ashes…Amen”
– Benediction: These might seem religious to some, but Jesus dismissed crowds formally (see Mark 6v45). The classic (well known) benedictions come from 2 Cor 13 v 14 and Jude 24
- 4. At the grave or the crematorium:
Most often people move in procession from the church to the grave/crematorium. When you arrive, speak to the undertaker with regard to your order of events and the signals you will give him to move the body. The people will gather at the grave while the coffin is put into place. The men in a family sometimes will want to use a spade at the end of the committal, this is not a bad thing, but it is probably wise to talk about the details before hand. Once the immediate family are present, take initiative by thanking people for coming.
– outline of what you going to do:
– give thanks
– say goodbye
– to give thanks, it is generally not a good idea to sing at a graveside, voices are lost in the open and most are too emotional for that (the exception is if a large crowd of confident singers are present, or if someone comes prepared with a song item to minister to those at the grave). The alternative is for you to read a hymn, or read the words of a song or a poem or a psalm.
– it is appropriate to pray , giving thanks for the departed , for life, for salvation etc…
– reading a scripture… E.g. Rev 21 or John 11v 25-27- and a short reflection… Just a few minutes, this shouldn’t be very long as you have already preached at the service.
– signal the lowering of the body to the undertaker
– take sand in your hand and throw it onto the coffin once it is lowered (silence is fine while it is being lowered)
– the committal (See above)
– you can end by inviting people to tea, thanking them for coming, or inviting them to throw petals onto the grave etc…
- Care after the service.
It is important to know that grieving is natural. Everyone grieves in their own way: some cry, some are numb, some get angry, some want silence, some want solitude, some want to talk, some want to laugh, and some want to remember. When grieving is suppressed, bypassed, or minimized it can lead to problems later. I see death with a sting, much like a bee sting, the process of grieving is like removing that sting. You leave the sting in the wound and complications arise. It’s painful, but necessary. People need to take the time to grieve. As believers we have the Promise of Jesus that He comforts those who mourn. The Holy Spirit is our Comforter.
- 6. Anniversary of death:
I have been amazed at how many people feel very tender at the anniversary date of the passing of a loved one. It is good to keep a register of funerals. It is a small discipline that will enable him to phone or text the family on the anniversary date just to say “thinking of you, praying for you…”
- 7. Helpful scriptures:
Matt 5 v4
Rom 8v 37-39
Rom 10 v 9
Heb 2 v15
1 Cor 2 v 7-10
1cor 15 v 40 – 58
2 Cor 4 v 6-18
Jon 8v 12
1 thes 5v23
2 Cor 5v1
Zec 8v 5
- 8. Concluding comments:
Angelo Diedericks (a psychiatrist) speaks of two classifications of suicide (from a medical perspective) namely: voluntary and involuntary suicide. The difference being that voluntary suicide is calculated, premeditated, considered and very intentional. Involuntary on the other hand, is often associated with substance abuse, chronic depression or personality disorders over which the person has little control. Clearly the latter is easier to explain and work through from a Christian world view. But in either instance one act of madness needs to be seen against a whole life. God doesn’t judge a life purely on the final act on earth. Neither is faith in Jesus obviously recanted in the surrender of one’s own life. So the pastor should be careful about judging. On the flip side of the coin, you cannot be seen to agree with the act or treat it lightly, this could easily prompt someone in the audience who is contemplating suicide to take the courage and go ahead with their plan. The pastor has a very serious role, not to judge, yet not to approve. God alone is the Judge. We also do not know the final thoughts of people during their last moments of consciousness. A final note rests on the word “suicide”, only once has a spouse asked me to deal with the subject “head on”. Generally speaking the word suicide is very emotive. I would try to use softer words such as, “died, passed away” etc…
8.2) Infant death:
The Bible is clear about God assigning angels to guard children. The way Jesus cared for and loved kids is a great launch pad to encourage a family from. In addition to that the Bible speaks of children being in heaven. To pose doubt as to the final destination of a child in the parent’s mind is both theologically suspect and pastorally heartless.
8.3) Death from disease where family was trusting for healing:
It is possible that people’s faith can be shaken when they were trusting for healing that does not materialise. The way not to handle it is to suggest faith was lacking, equally bad is to suggest God gave the sickness. There are numerous ways to deal with the matter such as handling a “theology on the Sovereignty of God”, or the truth of “to die is gain” or the “glory of heaven”…
8.4) Death of the unsaved
We need to remember that no matter what personal opinions we might have regarding the faith, or lack thereof, of the departed we are not “THE JUDGE”! God is. So you might want to re-word your committal, changing it to say “commit … to the mercy of God, asking that God be merciful to them as he has been to all of us” etc…
It is a good idea in this instance to allow the eulogies to speak about the departed and for you to present the gospel in a way that doesn’t expose the deceased, but rather puts the attention on the audience and their response to God and eternity.
8.5) Presenting the gospel at the funeral
If you present Jesus you will be able to present the Gospel. Your audience will not hear the gospel from you if you: appear insensitive to the family, if you have no emotional/ heart connection with the moment, if you are condemning, if you launch into the Text without setting it in context. Regarding calling people to respond. It is inappropriate to call people to the front for salvation if there is a coffin there. If you feel you need to see a bodily response to the act of receiving Jesus ( not that this is Biblical) then it’s probably best just to have hands raised during a prayer time. I prefer to lead people in prayer without an outward response.
SOME PERSPECTIVES FROM RUSS KAIN ( NCF Church Pastor)
Praying and ministering to the dying:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matt.5:4 Our God is the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort. A beautiful passage to share is from Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 23. It one is to face physical death with peace, confidence and a calm assurance the first step is to face it. Ask the question “ Do you know that you are dying? Are you prepared? Encourage the person to draw near to God through Jesus Christ in such a way that there is no condemnation, no fear, no uncertainty. Php 1:21 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul wasn’t afraid of dying. He had faced the realities of sin, of judgement, of God’s requirements in his life. Has the person accepted God’s offer of pardon, peace and eternal life through a faith in Jesus? Isaiah 40:6-8 “All flesh is grass, and it’s loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Derek Prince commenting on this passage said, “God gives us loveliness in the temporal world, and then He causes it to wither. Why? Because God wants us to know about loveliness. He wants us to know the loveliness that He’s capable of producing, but He never wants us to be permanently at home in this world.” Our approach should be sincere with a genuine love, care and concern.
2) Ministering to the family during the final stages of the life of a loved one. There is certain democracy to death. It comes to us equally and equals us all when it comes. The most important aspect is being there. A listening ear, a shoulder to lean on, a warm embrace, a thoughtful touch, a heartfelt prayer, an act of kindness, a thoughtful gesture are all helpful.
3) Care after the service. Grief is an intense, emotional suffering caused by personal loss. A healthy grieving process has a beginning, middle and end. Healing takes time and is unique to each person. Pain must be faced before it can be healed. The grieving process involves the revision of memories of the deceased and the gradual confronting of each one, as well as dealing with the adjustments of a new life. The whole sequence is repeated over and over agin until the mourner can reinvest emotional energy into living people again. The manner in which others respond to the grieving person can hurt or heal, and a lack of support through the following stages can prolong the process. The stages/cycles to grief;
Denial. This may be accompanied by shock, numbness, and feeling of nothingness or “unreality” If the death was sudden or violent the person may refuse to believe that the event has happened. The person may be illogical and needs to be treated sensitively.
Anger. This can be directed at the world, at the person who has died, at the perpetrator of violence and crime, at God, or at anyone who may not understand what they are feeling.
Depression. This occurs when there is a general feeling of being unable to cope with life and includes social withdrawal, desolation and a loss of hope. Appetite changes, sleep problems, lethargy may indicate this. It can also be characterized by intense feelings of longing and sadness, anger, personal feelings of inadequacy, difficulty managing routine and daily tasks, and the inability to enjoy things as before. There is a void that seemingly cannot be filled.
Acceptance. This is a gradual return to hope and belief that life will go on. It is the adjusting to the loss and entails moving on in terms of energy being invested in relationships, other pursuits and living again. Grief is not as constant or acute.
We have a grief share DVD course around a support group with a facilitator for 13 sessions.
4) Examples of committals for the grave side.
We commit the body of our dear brother/sister……… to the ground (or to be cremated), earth to earth, dust to dust and ashes to ashes; and we commend him/her to the just and merciful judgement of Him who alone has perfect understanding even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Forasmuch as our brother/sister has departed out of this life, and Almighty God in his great mercy has called him/her to himself, we therefore commit his/her body to the ground,earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen
Lord, we commend….. beloved husband, dear father and much respected friend into your hands. We pray that as you receive him, your grace, mercy and peace be sufficient for him as it is for us.
I heard a voice from heaven saying, from henceforth, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; even so, says the Spirit; for they shall rest from their labours.
Some perspectives from Bheki Zulu (NCF Church Pastor)
1) The night vigil (from an African view point)
This should not be the whole night so that the bereaved can have some rest.
2) Home meetings.
They should be some guidelines regarding the meetings that happen every day after death leading to the day of the funeral.
The difficulty is that you can’t stop other churches and neighbours from visiting the home daily. But if there is a leader in some meetings, people can be encouraged to have short meetings and disperse earlier.