Funeral for a Stranger
I sat in my office late on a Thursday afternoon after a week of meetings, study, and a thousand other crises big and small. By that point in the week I was thinking about what I would do on Friday: lock myself in my office, take no phone calls, and crank out the final draft of my Sunday sermon.
Alas, the phone rang, and I took the call.
“This is the Warren Funeral Home. We have a family requesting an evangelical funeral, and we were told you could do this.”
Word had gotten out, apparently.
I told the caller that, yes, I would do a funeral for this person I’d never met. This was, after all, my calling as a pastor. Though I could think of a thousand other things to do with my day, though my sermon prep would now stretch into Saturday, this was one unique way I could serve our community. I was reminded in that moment that God holds my plans in his hand, and he has the right to change them.
While the lady filled out the details over the phone, the Holy Spirit brought to my mind an image of a grieving family, trying to figure out life without someone they loved. If I didn’t come alongside this family with compassion, who would?
I hung up with the funeral director and dialed the grieving husband to ask if he could meet with me that evening. In the coming days, I would have to assume multiple roles: friend, pastor, storyteller, and eulogizer.
The process of walking a family through the death of a loved one is multi-layered. At the first level, you approach the survivors as a simple friend. Before you do anything, you must be present.
I knocked on Jack’s door later that evening. I had arranged to visit with the family that night. I introduced myself and said, “Jack, I’m the pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church, but mostly I’m coming to you as a friend. I’m sorry for your loss. I want to serve you in any way I can during this time.”
Jack was married to his wife, Helen, for 33 years. Her death was not expected. His children, grown and spread around the country, now gathered to grieve and plan next steps. Jack was barely able to hold himself together. I tried, as a young pastor, to simply be there, to offer words of comfort. I did my best to avoid theological clichés and to provide a firm and tender strength for this man whose world was falling apart.
There are many moments when being a pastor feels like a liability. I’ve had conversations in restaurants and barber shops and at family gatherings that grew silent when everyone found out what I did for a living.
But in moments of grief, when families are walking through a sudden loss, people long for a minister—someone called and trained to be present with them in their pain, to help them through their distress.
I find it vitally important, when ministering to someone I don’t know about losing someone I never met, to step fully and confidently into the role. Sometimes this means simple acts of comfort and mourning. Other times it is gathering the family together and reading some Scripture and praying.
The family needs to lean on you for the next few days. Details like scheduling the funeral or writing the obituary for the newspaper are often too painful to address. The pastor should offer gentle but steady leadership. Most family members are too drained from mourning their loved one to plan an order of service. In their minds, the pastor is the expert. You will need to guide them throughout the process, from the time you meet them until you say goodbye at the grave-side service.
When I spoke with Jack, I began by saying, “Jack, have you had time to think through how you might want this service to go?” I was prepared with a rough outline of a typical service. “This is what I’ve seen many families do,” I said, before asking some leading questions. “Do you have any music requests? Are there any passages of Scriptures or poems that are meaningful to your family? Would anyone in the family be interested in speaking to honor your wife?”
I reassured Jack several times in our conversation that my goal was to craft a service that would memorialize his wife in a way that would make the family proud.
As a minister of the gospel, I’ve always found it important to memorialize someone well at a funeral. For many who attend, this will be the only time they will step foot in a church and hear a pastor speak. The temptation, for many of us, is to use the funeral as a launching point for a gospel sermon, to almost pray the dead into glory. But if we do not carefully respect the deceased, we will not earn the right to be heard on gospel truths we hope to communicate at a time when family members may be most open to listening.
This task is much easier when preaching the funeral of someone we know well. I’ve led the funerals of good friends and long-time, faithful saints, and stories of their legacies and our time together came without much effort. But when presiding over the funeral of someone I never met, I do my homework by gathering some key facts from the family before putting the funeral homily together.
I typically do this when I visit with the family. After offering words of comfort and reassurance, and helping them put together an order of service, I invite the family to give me tidbits of information about their loved one.
With Jack, like with most who grieve, this was a therapeutic exercise. I asked him questions like, “How did you two meet? What kinds of activities did you enjoy doing together? What were her hobbies and pursuits? What are a few words you would use to describe her?”
I also asked the children similar questions: “What was your mother like? What were some of your favorite moments? What was she most passionate about?”
I take notes as they speak so I can weave them into my sermon. In this way, a good pastor is a journalist, gathering enough information to tell a story. After the funeral, the family thanked me: “You helped us remember her well.”
Perhaps the most important thing you will bring to this funeral is what you will say during the eulogy. I start by weaving in the anecdotes and details I gathered from the family. I work hard to highlight one or two good character traits and, if appropriate, I share a funny anecdote. I’ve learned to avoid pretending I know someone I never met. Glib phrases like “My friend …” will come across as callous and cheap when everyone knows you never met their loved one. But you might say something like, “I never had the privilege of meeting her, but after spending time with those who loved her, I wish I had.”
With Jack’s wife, I had very little data on her spiritual condition. She seemed to be a faithful churchgoer, but I couldn’t speak with certainty about where she would spend eternity. Rather than dwell on that, I chose to pivot into a discussion about why death happens. “We live in a world,” I said, “where people we love are taken from us way too soon. It is natural for us to grieve.”
I spoke about Jesus’ bitter grief at the death of his friend, Lazarus. At funerals like these, I’m tempted to leap too quickly into a discussion about the blessings of Heaven for those who know Jesus. It’s important to allow proper space for grief. The Scriptures are full of rich lament. By dwelling on the pain of death and loss, you give permission to the family and those present to process their grief.
Ironically, I’ve found that a discussion of death becomes an onramp to hope. The Christian story tells us that death is not the final answer. Jesus defeated death, our last and terrible enemy. He offers to us the hope of eternal life with him, of a world that will no longer snatch away our loved ones. I usually end with an appeal for the people present to know the Good Shepherd, who bore our grief and sorrow and remains near to his people.
After I finished the funeral service for Jack’s wife, I made my way, with the family, to the funeral procession. As we drove, I reflected on the privilege of guiding people through the most difficult parts of their lives. This is the essence of shepherding. All the training and reading and preparing equips us to press the Good News into the brokenness of life in a fallen world.
This article was originally published here.