Designing A Funeral Service And A Funeral Sermon

Original English Sermon
Authored by Mike Furey

Dedication: To The Memory Of Mrs. Hazel Boggs, Vevay, Indiana, USA

Text: First Thessalonians 4:18 "Wherefore comfort one another with these words."

This message is for ministers. As I searched the literature in order to develop a philosophy of funerals, the consensus was to comfort those who are in bereavement. Thus, I follow the conventional wisdom and have adopted that philosophical stance. One author said his purpose in conducting the service was to glorify God and thus help the sorrowing friends.[1] I think glorifying God is the chief purpose of any human endeavor, but in order to stress the particularity of this service I feel a more earthly and less transcendent emphasis is appropriate. That God should be glorified is a priori a priority. Having the comfort of the hurting individuals in the forefront provides the distinctive characteristic of the service that will prevent it from becoming akin to a Sunday morning worship service.

My philosophy of funeral services then requires me to attempt to provide comfort for the loved ones of the deceased and for those who mourn. The pastor offers spiritual comfort, hope, encouragement, and peace.[2] In light of this philosophy, I have learned some practical guidelines as follows:

Prayers in the funeral service are often the most effective means for comforting the bereaved.[3]
Naming the aggrieved ones, especially the bereaved family members, during the prayer of comfort is often consoling.[4]
The pastor shall not accept an honorarium for this service when the deceased was a member of his perish. However, if the pastor is required to travel a great distance, his or her expenses should be met.[5]

In light of this philosophy, I have learned some practical guidelines for a funeral sermon:

Because the ultimate comfort of the bereaved is to be found in God's mercy, a funeral message that points the bereaved to God will be of greater comfort than one that focuses only on the feelings of the bereaved.[6]
Themes for the funeral sermon should be upon the Christian hope for resurrection, the sustaining power of God, the Christian understanding of death and life.[7]
According to the Presbyterians, Christians should seek to make the occasion of death a time in which they affirm with joy the hope of the gospel, even the resurrection.[8]

Other tips for the sermon include:

  1. Be Biblical.
  2. Be Positive.
  3. Be Interesting.
  4. Be Simple.
  5. Be Short.
  6. Be Understandable.[9]

I learned some of the basic problems of a minister in doing a funeral include:

  1. The lack of preparation time for the sermon.
  2. The peculiar and unpredictable mood of the mourners.
  3. The coldness of the minister.
  4. The Bible is not specific about the nature of eternity or of life after death.[10]

As I studied on how to do a funeral service my understanding for this ministry widened and I came to see other important related areas of ministry. The Roman Catholic Church has three rites or funeral services.[11] The first service is in the home, where prayer, scripture reading, and a comforting presence was offered. The second service was in the church or the funeral home. The third service was in the cemetery, which was very brief.

Cadenhead, in his Southern Baptist funeral manual, offers practical advice in total ministry to the bereaved.[12] As soon as the minister hears of the death, he or should should have a "timely response." The family should be contacted immediately to show that the minister cares, "I'm concerned," or "I promise my prayers." He or she can make this immediate response by phone, telegram, or a visit. The minister must not keep the family in limbo. Secondly, a pastoral visit is in order The minister should make a prompt visit, without shyness and without roaring or glibness. In this visit the minister should sit and listen to the mood and assess the needs. He or she might hold hands, embrace, or ask questions, if welcomed. The minister should find out about any requests for music, scripture, or any particular requests. Normally I would not have an evangelistic funeral service. One funeral service I observed was very evangelistic, but it was done at the request of the deceased. If the funeral is being done for an unchurched or an otherwise unfamiliar person, then during the pastoral visit the minister should learn some personal information about the deceased. This information should be incorporated into the sermon in order to make connections with the family that allows them to do their grief work. Otherwise, the sermon might be too generic and sterile, even "inaffective." In this visit the minister should not "camp out" with the family but allow them to receive other visitors. The minister should pray and leave. Third, the minister provides support and strength for the bereaved in the funeral service. Fourth, the graveside service is ten minutes or less, with brief remarks, scripture, prayer, and a closing commital statement. The minister should stand at the head of the casket. Fifth, he advises a follow-up, which is the most important time for ministry because the aggrieved are usually forgotten by society at this stage.

In addition to Cadenhead's fivefold steps I found an appropriate step that suits my rural church, which comes after Cadenhead's fourth point. After the graveside service, the American Baptist funeral manual recommends a social gathering at a church supper or at someone's home, if appropriate.[13] The pastor may go over the bereaved one's home or the local church fellowship hall for a gathering.

Whether the death of the individual is by sickness, sudden situation, suicide, or senescence, my basic goal is to comfort. In designing a basic funeral service that comforts, I will have these basic traditional elements:

  1. Call to attention.
    This call would involve a poetic statement to preface the service. It would go something like...
    We gather today because the bell has tolled. Death in its untimely way has come to dwell among us. We gather to put our arms around one another, and especially around this family, and to say to each member: You matter to us, your grief has reached into our lives, and we are sad for ourselves and for you. We gather with broken hearts to do our grief work to the end that we might discover both comfort and courage. And we gather to celebrate the life of (name) to remember the life that he/she lived, and to hold it before us today as one uttelry unique and significant human life. We gather, too, to worship the living God - the one who is Lord of life and of death, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  2. Prayer.
    The prayer would involve statements like...
    We stand before the mystery of life and death, help us to do it with dignity and honesty. We celebrate the gift of life, help us to be grateful; we wait to hear from you, help us to receive your presence, through Jesus Christ.
  3. Eulogy.
    This reading might come from the local newspaper. All information must be accurate. All names must be pronounced properly.
  4. Special Music.
    Someone might sing or the congregation might sing together.
  5. Scripture reading.
    The text can be read by the minister, any relative, or friend.
  6. Sermon.
    The sermon might be on the text that was read. A list of sermon texts dealing with comforting scriptures is in Appendix A.[14]
  7. Prayer.
    The prayer might contain elements of thanksgiving for the life of the person who died, a request for comfort for the bereaved and for all of us, and a summary of our hope and aspiration in Jesus Christ.

By way of conclusion and application, here is sermon I delivered, which is published here in honor of Mrs. Hazel Boggs and used by permission from her loving family:

Funeral Sermon for Mrs. Hazel Boggs
Minister: Michael Furey
Date: June 8, 1993

Revelation 1:18 "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." These are the words of Jesus as he spoke to John the apostle and prophet.

"MY KEY" By Hazel Boggs Of Vevay, Indiana

There is a sweet communion
Between my Lord and me.
He solves my every problem
Because he holds the key.
I do not fear the future
For I am safe with him.
He helps to bear my burdens
And forgives my every sin.

I have heartaches by the dozens
And burdens by galore
And sometimes I cry out, "Dear Lord,
Could I stand any more?"
He put his arm around me
And whispered tenderly:
"Every burden that you bear
Brings you closer to me."

I could not live without him.
My life would be despair.
I know he's right beside me
And knows my every care.
I tell him all my heartaches,
My thoughts, my cares, my woes.
His Holy Spirit dwells inside
To guide me where I go.
Dear friends, don't think I'm perfect.
I'm human, don't you see?
It's just because I let my Lord
Become a part of me.
I do not fear the future;
I'm as happy as can be
Because I trust in Jesus
And Jesus holds the key.

Our life is like a prison
And we are chained within
With all the vices of the world
And every kind of sin.
Commit your life to Jesus.
It's the only way, you see
And Jesus will unlock the door
And he will set you free.

Comments:

"My Key": A poem about one of her personal testimonies, She says it is her key, "My key." Whatis the key that Hazel Boggs wanted to express out of her being and into this poem so that you and I might know her thoughts?

"There is a sweet communion between my Lord and me:"

"Communion" a relationship with God
"Sweet" It was beautiful to her to know God
"Lord" God was her boss. He directed her life each day.

"He solves my every problem because he holds the key" Hazel never mentions any particular problem that she experienced. But she says that God helped her with every problem because he holds the key. The Lord is the source. The Lord can open up any roadblock or dead end in our life. When we are trapped he has the key to the wayout. He is the God of the Exodus. In this time of grief and loss, the way to comfort is Christ.

"I do not fear the future for I am safe with him." She was a wise person who thought of the future. Most people live only for today. She found security in the eternal God. She even knew the day of her death would one day arrive. Therefore, she wrote...

"He helps to bear my burdens and forgives my every sin." She asked for forgiveness of sin from God long long ago. She knew that she could not bear her burdens alone and that she needed a Savior.

The next stanza in the poem shows us that Hazel was going through a very painful experience at a particular point in her life. I believe she is describing her feelings at the time of her husband's death. Listen to her words again:

"I have heartaches by the dozens and burdens by galore; and sometimes I cry out, 'Dear Lord, could I stand any more?' He put his arm around me and whispered tenderly: "Every burden that you bear brings you closer to me."

..."brings you closer to me." Hazel believed communion with Jesus is the key to dealing with life's hard times. "My key."

In the next stanza, Hazel describes this communion that she has with her Lord. In this beautiful description she declares her faith and utter dependence upon Him. She tells how she stays happy and hopeful in a world of imperfection, fear, and anxiety:

"I could not live without him." And because she could not live without him, she will live forever with him. Dependence upon God is a key to eternal life. Hazel has secured for herself eternal life through faith in the Lord who died on the cross for her sins and rose from the dead.

Also, dependence upon God is the key to why this woman was a beautiful person. She is known for her radiance. People say you could see Jesus all over her face. The only flaw I know of in Hazel's life: she loved chocolate. She would hide Hershey's kisses and cookies for herself. In reality, she was one of the most faithful and disciplined Christians at Switzerland Baptist Church. She never missed. Her family would not miss. Her husband Ed was a deacon and very active in that role. They both were faithful to God's work. She was a pillar of the church.

She was one of those rare individuals who stuck with the church through its tough days as well as the good days. Without people like her the church can't thrive. Now who is going to take her place? We need more people who can say Jesus is "my key."

"My life would be despair." Without God she felt life was hopeless. And she is exactly right. We are without hope in this world if there is no God. Or if you reject God's love, you have no great expectations for the future. If you don't let Jesus open doors for you, you have a limited future, a dead end.

"I know he's right beside me and knows my every care." This is the key to being strong as a human being, when we know God is right beside us and cares for us. It is one of the main messages of the Bible. "God is with us." One of Jesus' names is Immanuel, meaning God is with us. Hazel's understanding of the Bible is so comprehensive and mature. It is almost as if she wrote a psalm here because it reflects that type of scriptural power and precision.

"I know he's right beside me and knows my every care. I tell him all my heartaches, my thoughts, my cares, my woes." What an honest and real relationship she had with God that she told him exactly what was on her mind and heart. The reason she had such a fantastic smile was because she left the not so happy stuff of life with the one who could do something about it.

"His Holy Spirit dwells inside to guide me where I go." Here she confesses that she trusted the Holy Spirit of God to live in her and to show her how to live. She admits that she wasn't perfect even in her walk with God so she writes: "Dear friends, don't think I'm perfect. I'm human, don't you see? It's just because I let my Lord become a part of me."

"I do not fear the future; I'm as happy as can be because I trust in Jesus and Jesus holds the key." Again she tells us she has no fear of the future. She tells us how she can be happy even in this world of woe. It is because of her faith in Jesus. Jesus holds the key. Jesus is the key to survival in a world of despair, burdens, heartaches, cares, and woes. Jesus will bring victory to any one who lets him. Jesus has the power to open up the doors that life slams and shuts in our face. Jesus will turn the door of death into the entry way of paradise.

In the last stanza Hazel preaches to us and tells us that the world is like a prison full of sin. Jesus is the only way to be free from this imprisonment because he holds the key. "Our life is like a prison and we are chained within with all the vices of the world and every kind of sin. Commit your life to Jesus. It's the only way, you see, and Jesus will unlock the door and he will set you free."

Revelation 3:28 Jesus said, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." There is one key Jesus does not have. The key to your heart. Open the door to Christ. Have communion with God; like Hazel Boggs did. For she has said, communion with Jesus has been "my key" to existence, And now he is her key to eternal life!

End Notes:

1.Andrew Watterson Blackwood, The Funeral: A Source Book For Ministers (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1942), p. 23.

2.Paul E. Irion, The Funeral: An Experience Of Value (Milwaukee, WI: Seventy-fifth Annual Convention Of The National Funeral Directors Association, October 24, 1956), p.1.

3.Perry H. Biddle, Jr., Abingdon Funeral Manual (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1984), pp. 18, 36.

4.Friedrich Rest, Funeral Handbook (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1982), p. 12.

5.Biddle, Manual p. 57.

6.Biddle, Manual p. 36.

7.Paul E. Irion, The Funeral: Vestige Or Value? (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1966), p. 16.

8.The Office Of Worship For The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) And The Cumberland Presbyterian Church, The Funeral: A Service To Witness To The Resurrection (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986), p. 76.

9.W. A. Poovey, Planning A Christian Funeral: A Minister's Guide (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), pp. 11ff.

10.Ibid.

11.Richard Rutherford, The Death Of A Christian: The Rite Of Funerals (New York, NY: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 1-255.

12.Al Cadenhead, Jr., The Minister's Manual For Funerals (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1988), p. 18ff.

13.Rest, Handbook, p. 11.

14.Nolan B. Harmon, Jr., The Pastor's Ideal Funeral Manual (New York, NY: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1942), pp. 201-203.

Appendix A: Abbreviated List


A Comforting Invitation--Matt. 11:28; Ps. 101:2; Rev. 22:17.
Afflcition, Momenatry--II Cor. 4:17.
Another Comforter--John 14:16-18; Isa. 51:12.
Blessed Are They That Mourn--Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:21; Jer. 21:13.
Explained Hereafter--John 13:7; I Cor. 13:12.
God Gave and Hath Taken--Job 1:21, 5:18; Ps. 147:3
God Our Refuge--Deut. 33:27; Ps. 121:2, 60:11.
His Grace Sufficient--II Cor. 12:9; Deut. 33:25.
I Shall Go To Him--II Sam. 12:23; John 14:2.
It Is Well--II Kings 4:26; Job 2:10; Acts 21:14.
Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled--John 14:1.
Mourning For A Mother--Ps. 35:14; Isa. 66:13.
Mourning Turned To Joy--Jer. 31:13; Isa. 14:3.
Sorrow Not Without Hope--I Thess. 4:13; Heb. 6:19; Mark 16:10.
The Compassionate Christ--Luke 7:13; Ps. 86:15; John 11:33.

 
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