Reflections on Funerals

On July 1, 2018, I retired from active pastoral ministry. For 48 years, I was privileged to serve as a pastor or staff associate in eight different congregations in both Illinois and Texas. In these last years, I continue on occasion to officiate weddings and funerals for family and friends. I think part of the reason I am still called upon to serve in these ways is that I have considerable "history" under my "ministerial belt!" That is to say, I know the personal stories of family and friends. This enables me to bring a more intimate and familiar dimension to these kinds of services.

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During the last few months, I have conducted three funerals. Each of these services have had similar elements in them that enable family and friends to honor their loved one, process their grief and loss, and bring a witness to others of the realities of God's comfort and His promise of an afterlife. 

After all these years, I have had many experiences in dealing with families as they planned their funerals. I want to offer some suggestions about the importance of funerals and some insights for those preparing end-of-life services. 

First, decide to have a funeral service. I state this from my own personal experience with grief as well as what I have observed serving others at a time of death. Funerals are for the living and help us process our grief when a loved one passes on. Don't feel like you need to rush through this and get to the gravesite as soon as possible. We need time to accept the reality of this great loss whether it is sudden or somewhat anticipated. I suggest that a wake or funeral visitation gives a structured occasion when family and friends can meet and encourage each other through a time of grief and loss. 

Second, ask a clergy person to serve you. Call upon the pastor of your local church or request that the funeral home recommend one if you don't have a relationship with a church.  You may have a family member who is in ministry that could assist you in this season of loss. These individuals usually have formal training or ministry experience in grief management. They are able to help you plan a dignified and meaningful service that will include scripture reading, comforting prayers, a biblical message, appropriate music, and the sharing of family memories.

Third, personalize the service. If he or she doesn't offer, request that your officiant meet with your family a day or two before the service to facilitate a time of sharing memories. This time of interview and reflection is necessary for at least two reasons. It gives the family time to openly share experiences they want to celebrate and remember about their loved one. It also provides biographical information that the pastor can use in his remarks to bring familiarity to the service. We want to avoid a "cookie cutter" or "generic" approach to funerals. Instead, the goal of these advance preparations is to have those in attendance feeling, "He really did know our loved one and friend!"

Fourth, involve your family members. (This is related to personalizing the service.) Depending on your time constraints, allow participation by selected family members who may want to sing a solo, share a poem, read a personal memory, or serve as a pall bearer. You will always be glad later that you had some of your family members involved in the actual service.

Fifth, share a witness to Christ. I am referring to the matter of including the gospel in the message portion of the service. It is usually quite easy for the officiant to transition from reading a passage like John 14:1-6, to sharing a few, but important words about how we can know "the way" to heaven by having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who is Savior and Lord. It is true that those grieving need to be encouraged and comforted by the message, but they also, especially unbelievers, need to hear the gospel. I have spoken to many more unchurched individuals in funeral settings than in church services!

Sixth, give hope! The funeral and gravesite services should be occasions when hope is shared. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies." (John 11:25). This is our hope in Christ! I think that everyone yearns for hope and meaning in their lives. People need to hear about heaven, eternal life and that Christ will come again someday. They also need to know that abundant, full and purposeful life is possible in the here and now. Jesus also said, "I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10, NIV). Remember, our job as Christ-followers is not to "scare people into heaven," but instead, to lovingly lead them through a warm and inviting life-witness of Jesus Christ. 

My intention here is not to provide an exhaustive list of things to do in funeral planning. But, if we can get the discussion going about some things, I think I will have accomplished my mission. As you have opportunity, get your family together before the next loss of a loved one. Share some thoughts and if possible, make some plans about what you want to do when that time of grief comes your way. 

May the God of all comfort, comfort you!

Mike Keppler, retired pastor,
active churchman and
doting grandparent. 


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