As the sounds echoed across the cemetery, I realized nothing in any of my training had prepared me for this. Putting dents in caskets certainly did not fit into my carefully constructed theological convictions about funeral services. And yet, as I thought back to the message I had given earlier that day, I was reminded that God can redeem the brokenness in our lives, making us into something beautiful for his use.
In addition to serving my church, located near the rocky coast of Maine, I also serve the greater community through funeral home chaplaincy. Performing 50 - 60 services each year, I meet with families weekly, representing the Good Shepherd who is willing to walk with them as they journey through the valley of the shadow of death.
Often these families have a faith background, but for a variety of reasons have fallen away from their particular church or pastor. Some families have scattered and do not have a local church connection near their family cemetery. Still others may have little to no faith, but seek the comfort of faith during a time of grief or loss. In each of these varied situations, I attempt to ascertain the needs of the family and how I can help them encounter God.
Pastors have a tremendous window of opportunity to serve their communities during times of grief. Unfortunately, funeral directors tell me too many stories of pastors who are too busy or simply refuse to perform services for anyone outside their congregations. This has led some funeral homes to hire in-house “celebrants”—emcees who provide a generic non-religious memorial service. This is an area of ministry that we could potentially lose, not because we’ve been pushed out, but because we’ve found it too easy to abdicate our responsibility to the community.
I would encourage all pastors to consider visiting their local funeral homes to introduce themselves and make themselves available to serve the community whenever the need arises. Funeral home chaplaincy is one very tangible way that we can fulfill the call of James 1:27:
RELIGION THAT IS PURE AND UNDEFILED BEFORE GOD, THE FATHER, IS THIS: TO CARE FOR ORPHANS AND WIDOWS IN THEIR DISTRESS, AND TO KEEP ONESELF UNSTAINED BY THE WORLD.
About 10 years ago, I completed a class on pastoral care and counseling as part of my ministerial preparation. I wrote a paper which outlined my convictions about funeral services. As I re-read that paper, I found it to be a bit more dogmatic and bombastic than I recalled. Over time, I’ve discovered that my theological convictions about funerals are important, but that I must also be willing to contextualize those convictions in pastoral and practical ways. If I’m going to represent the Good Shepherd, I must be willing to meet families where they are, nudging them along in their own journey of faith.
While we each bring our own convictions, regional customs, personalities, and experiences to the table, it’s my hope that the following guiding principles may help you as you serve your congregation and your community.
WORSHIP IS CENTRAL TO ALL WE DO. AND FOR THAT REASON OUR WHOLE LIFE IS BOTH A PROCESSION TOWARD WORSHIP AND A PROCESSION OUT OF WORSHIP. LIFE IS A CYCLE OF CONSTANT RETURN TO THE SOURCE OF OUR NEW LIFE AND TO THE EMPOWERMENT FOR LIFE THAT WE RECEIVE FROM THE CHRIST WE MEET AND CELEBRATE IN WORSHIP.
—Robert Webber, Worship Is a Verb: Celebrating God’s Mighty Deeds of Salvation
Ministry of Presence - I firmly believe I serve as a tangible representation of Christ when spending time with a grieving family. My phone calls, house visits, attendance at visiting hours, and availability for follow-up are important. I spend a lot of time asking questions and listening, helping the family to process their grief. I respect and honor the deceased by learning his or her story. And I count it a privilege to enter into the fabric of the family as its pastor.
Funeral as Worship - Remember that paper I wrote as a student? Most of it was about my convictions that funeral services ought to truly be an act of worship—with prayers, Scripture readings, and hymns comprising the bulk of the service. In a Christian funeral, I believe the service ought to be as much about the God who gives life as it is about the person whose life we are remembering.
Proclamation of the Gospel - Funerals provide an excellent opportunity to share the certain hope that Christians have. While we honor and remember the deceased through a eulogy, our primary objective ought to be proclaiming hope through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This need not be a “hellfire and brimstone” sermon; it can be as simple as reading passages that explore why Christians have hope in the bodily resurrection of the dead.
Celebrate the Gift of Life - Funerals are a time of grief and sorrow, which should be acknowledged. However, they are also an opportunity to formally thank God for the gift of life. Further, they serve to recognize the contributions and accomplishments made by the deceased. Celebrating a life doesn’t necessarily mean throwing a party, but it does mean that we take time to retell some personal stories, highlighting the ways this person was a unique creation of our holy God. It is often through carefully honoring the deceased that we earn the right to be heard when we talk about God.
Created in the Image of God - Believing that God’s grace is at work in the life of every person, I recognize that the deceased was created in the image of God. Regardless of how tarnished their reflection of the imago dei may have been, I always work to find relevant Scripture, which helps us connect the life of the deceased to the God who gave that life. One of my goals is to segue from a eulogy to a homily without anyone noticing. This allows me to proclaim the gospel without appearing “preachy.”
SUGGESTED SCRIPTURES FOR . . .
A NATURE LOVER:
A SELF-SACRIFICIAL PERSON:
SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T WORRY:
A WELL-BALANCED LIFE:
2 COR. 5:16-21
2 TIM. 4:6-8
Human Dignity - Humans are unique in all of creation because we honor and care for our dead. I believe that every person ought to be able to have a funeral or committal service regardless of their financial resources or background. Sometimes this means that I donate my services for families in difficult circumstances. On one occasion, I worked with a local funeral director to put together a military service for a Vietnam veteran who died without any family or close friends. The director and I drove an hour to the Maine Veterans Cemetery to meet the Honor Guard and to perform a brief service. While no mourners attended the service, we walked away feeling that we had honored this man’s life and his service to his country.
I am not God - I primarily serve families I do not know. As a result, I am helping them remember someone I have never met. Because of this, I remind myself it is not my job to decide who is “in” and who is “out.” I do not get to preach someone into heaven, nor do I have the job of condemning them to hell. Instead, my job is to help the family commit their loved one into the hands of God and to trust the good and merciful Judge to do what is right. With a little creativity, the gospel can be proclaimed without drawing conclusions about the deceased’s eternal destination.
The Danger of Manipulation - Guilt and grief can be powerful motivators, which can also be used inappropriately as tools of manipulation. Death provides an opportune window to help people confront their own mortality. Families are more open to discuss matters of faith, and those in attendance may be more sensitive to spiritual issues. At the same time, we must be careful not to exploit the situation, possibly doing long-term harm to someone’s journey of faith. While an opportunity for response is always appropriate, the manner of that response may vary depending on setting and context. For instance, while an altar call may be an appropriate response in certain church settings, an opportunity for response in a funeral home will have more to do with pastoral availability for conversation before and after the service.
With these convictions and principles in mind, I have found the following practical tips to be helpful as I work with funeral directors and families.
Listen Well - One of the best compliments I receive is when a family member or friend tells me after the service that my remarks were perfect . . . or that I “hit the nail on the head.” I can only eulogize someone I don’t know by asking questions and listening well. When I do my job well, I have taken the information the family has given me and synthesized it into a eulogy that not only honors the deceased, but provides an opportunity to share the hope that is found in Jesus.
Be Shockproof - I’ve had to learn to be prepared for anything and to be fairly unflappable. People who are grieving often need to share information and details they might not otherwise share. Allowing them a safe place to share their feelings is a step toward healing. At the same time, I recognize the need for a sensitive filter—not everything a family tells me ought to end up in a eulogy!
Minister to Funeral Directors too - Often, my ministry extends to funeral professionals as well as families. The directors I work with are some of the hardest working, most compassionate, and generous people I know. However, their job has them doing things that most of the rest of us would never want to do: attending deaths at accident, suicide, or murder scenes. They see and experience things on a weekly basis most of us hope to never see in a lifetime. I’ve always made myself available to listen on days when they want to talk, hoping to provide spiritual care for them as well.
Be Flexible - Each family is different, and unique needs will present themselves. Sometimes, your carefully constructed theological convictions will be challenged. Without abandoning those convictions, you may often have to contextualize those convictions, trusting that God can use your ministry. Sometimes I cringe inside when a family asks for a particular song or poem, but I do my best to work their requests in. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t officiate a funeral in a Red Sox polo, but that turned out to be the best way to minister to one particular family.
Be Available - All of the funeral directors have my cell phone number, and they know that I will call them back within the hour. I intentionally keep my schedule flexible so I can be available at the last minute. Family members have my cell phone number and email address in case they need to be in touch with me before or after the services. I make sure to be present before visiting hours and before and after the service so I can address spiritual needs or simply offer a hug while touching base with a family member.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE FAMILY
CONSIDER SOME OF THESE CONVERSATION PROMPTS TO HELP LEARN ABOUT THE DECEASED:
What values would they want to pass along to their children and grandchildren?
What was important to them in life?
What were some of their favorite things?
What are some of your favorite memories?
What were their favorite verses or hymns?
How would you describe their personality?
What did most people call them?
Meet All the Family - It is not always possible, but I try to meet as many of the family members as I can, providing an opportunity for them to share some thoughts or memories with me before the service. I try to pay particular attention to children, making sure that they know who I am before the service, and that I can answer any questions they might have.
Be Consistent - While my services are unique to each family, the funeral directors know there is a particular rhythm and flow to my services. For instance, I conclude almost every service with the Lord’s Prayer, some instructions, and then a benediction. This consistency allows the funeral directors ample warning to be ready to dismiss people and prepare for the next steps.
Be Early - Few things cause more stress to a funeral director than a clergyperson who is habitually late. At some point, the director begins to wonder if the pastor is simply running late, or has forgotten to show up altogether! I make it a point to arrive about 15-30 minutes before each service. This gives me a chance to check with the family for any last-minute changes and reassures the funeral directors that I am present. (It has the added benefit that if I were to forget a service, they’d be calling me about 15 minutes before start time, wondering where I was.)
Follow-up - At the end of each service, I walk over to each family member, offering a hug or a handshake. I also remind them they have my number, and they can call me if they need anything. I assume most clergy do the same thing. And I suspect most family members disregard the offer, or simply fail to take initiative in their own follow-up grief care.
After a year of serving in this capacity, I realized I was not doing a particularly good job at following up with all of these families I have met. I also realized providing any level of pastoral care for an additional 50 families would require some help. We eventually found a series of four booklets that are designed to be mailed out three weeks, three months, six months, and 11 months after a loss. The funeral home helped us to purchase the booklets, and one of my church members mails them out, including a short note I have written on church letterhead. These have provided a means for my church to minister to the families I have served, and we have seen some opportunity for follow-up care as a result.
A few months ago, I was privileged to share some of these thoughts with a class of college students. During the Q&A at the end of the presentation, one of the students expressed concern she could never be comfortable doing this, and that the idea of serving a grieving family seemed completely overwhelming. She concluded her question by saying it seemed as though this ministry came “easy” to me and wondered if it was always that way.
The reality is this sort of ministry never gets “easy.” In addition to absorbing some of the emotions of the families we serve, we must be mindful of our own personal grief issues and spiritual needs. Sometimes I struggle with how to best remain true to my calling while serving a family that does not seem at all interested in the faith I want to share. And on the occasional week when I do multiple funerals, I find myself reciting Psalm 91:7: “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”
I have learned even though I may not have all the answers, I have yet to plumb the depths and riches of God’s love and grace. I trust that God uses my efforts to journey with people through the valley as I plant seeds of faith. And whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed, I am reminded that not only does the Good Shepherd walk with the grieving family, the Good Shepherd walks with meas well.
- LEARN NAMES
- LISTEN WELL
- BE PRESENT AND AVAILABLE
- RIDE IN THE HEARSE IF POSSIBLE
- DEVELOP A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FUNERAL DIRECTORS
- LEARN LOCAL AND REGIONAL CUSTOMS
- BE FLEXIBLE AND ADAPTABLE
- ASK FOR FAMILY INPUT ON THE DIRECTION OF THE SERVICE
- TAKING SIDES IN FAMILY DISPUTES
- MAKING THINGS UP
- EXAGGERATING OR OVERSTATING THE “GOODNESS” OF THE INDIVIDUAL
- USING GUILT OR GRIEF TO MANIPULATE
- GIVING “PAT” ANSWERS
- MINIMIZING GRIEF
- “PLAYING GOD”
Jonathan K. Twitchell is in his 12th year of ministry at the Cape Elizabeth (ME) Church of the Nazarene and his fifth year serving as a chaplain at Hobbs Funeral Home in South Portland, Maine