Pastoring the Dying and the Mourning
Every morning, in recent weeks, my wife and I walked past an injured Canada goose, whose feathers stuck out in several directions. Several geese stayed with the injured bird in dutiful care for their wounded friend.
Likewise, caring for the dying and the mourning is the pastor’s loving duty. Paul teaches us that when one member of Christ’s body suffers, “all the members suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Caring for those who suffer promotes the unity of the body of Christ and fosters the communion of saints. Furthermore, dying and mourning saints have a claim on our compassion for Christ’s sake (Matthew 25:40; see also John 11:33-36).
Death is so final, so irreversible, that the dying and the mourning need pastoral care perhaps more at this time than at any other in life. The initial shock of a terminal illness or death cries out for pastoral help in working through grief biblically, making difficult decisions, planning funeral services, repairing brokenness, and addressing guilt. People need hope, support, and love to get through these crises.
Pastoring the dying and the mourning is challenging, sobering, and rewarding. It is challenging because we need great wisdom to know how to respond to people’s needs scripturally, truthfully, and compassionately. It is sobering because we stand by our parishioners as they cross the threshold of time into eternity. And it is rewarding because the dying and the mourning are open at this time about their deepest feelings and hungry to receive guidance from Scripture.1
Visiting the dying
Here are some suggestions for visiting the dying.
Make frequent, short visits. People who are dying cannot be visited too often. Their need for scriptural guidance and earnest prayer is great. When you can’t be present for a day, call by phone and talk with them for a few minutes.
A twenty-minute visit in person is usually sufficient. Sometimes five minutes is all that sick people can handle. In extreme cases, their pain may be so intense that all you should do is read a few verses and pray. At other times, these folks may be more comfortable and indicate they’d like you to stay longer. Honor that request, but don’t stay longer than thirty minutes. It’s better to have a short, meaningful visit than a lengthy visit that loses focus.
If family members are present, you may want to visit separately with some of them after you've visited the patient. The length of such a visit depends on what they want as well as upon your own time constraints. If family members are very distraught, you may want to stay with them longer, even if it means postponing or canceling your next visit.
Two general guidelines: First, seize the opportunity to reach the mourning when their consciences are tender. Second, when conversation begins to drift away from matters of real importance, bring the visit to a close. Read another Scripture passage, pray, and move on.
Begin by listening. As you enter the home or hospital room, shake hands with relatives, addressing them by name. Be warm and calm. Move as soon as possible to the bedside of the patient. Sit as close as possible, reaching for his or her hand, if the person is comfortable with that. Look the patient in the face, and ask, “Do you have much pain?” If pain is intense and death is imminent, ask, “Are you having a difficult time?” Allow the person enough time to talk about physical pain, emotional stress, fears, and spiritual concerns. Welcome expressions of the person’s hopes for eternity with a question such as: “Dear friend, as you face the prospect of death, is your hope for eternity grounded only in Jesus Christ?” In more serious cases, you might ask more directly, “Dear friend, is it well with your soul – are you ready to meet the Lord if He were to take you from this world now?”
Listen carefully so that the patient may speak from the heart and that you may, as a spiritual physician, correctly diagnose his or her spiritual condition. If you fail to make a correct diagnosis, you may give the wrong medication from Holy Scripture. It is possible that one Scripture passage may be spiritually therapeutic for one dying person but poison for another. If the dying friend fails to respond despite all your loving efforts, you, like a good physician, should apply pressure to various places. Discreetly probe for tender spots through persistent but loving questions.
Despite your best efforts, the patient may not respond at this time. Take heart; he or she might feel freer to open up another day. Remember that people move through various phases of coping with their illness – from tense uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness, to denial, hopelessness, and, finally, acceptance.2 In addition, in the face of death a person’s personality can change so much that even close family members find it difficult to relate to him or her.
Don’t take such alterations personally, but recognize that the interactions between a person’s emotions and physical disease can generate rapid shifts in moods.
Look for the right balance between loving concern and respect for another person’s space. Patiently attend to the person, offering hands of mercy and prayer.3
Read and apply Scripture. Select an appropriate passage, based on your diagnosis of the patient’s spiritual condition. Let it be short and relevant. Then offer one or two thoughts from the text that you believe address the greatest spiritual needs of the patient. Keep your words brief and scriptural. People who talk too much are often more of a burden than a help to the dying. And guidance without Scripture is actually misguidance.
If the patient has doubts about his or her salvation, direct attention to the living God to whom “belong the issues of death” (Psalm 68:20), and who is able and willing to save even the greatest of sinners who take refuge in Him. Present the basics of the gospel, then talk about the need for faith and repentance. Gently but lovingly question the person about whether he or she has come to repentence and faith in Jesus Christ.
At this point, don’t allow relatives who may think well of the eternal state of the patient to deter you from examining the person to find out whether he or she has truly experienced repentance, faith in Christ, and holiness. If those marks of grace do not appear to be present, do not tell the patient that he or she is unsaved, for we may not act as judge at another’s deathbed. Yet we may, and I believe must, earnestly direct such a person to examine himself or herself for those marks of grace.
For that we must use Scripture. Over several visits, speak to the patient about the Beatitudes and the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). All the while, stress Christ’s blood, merits, and person. Show how Jesus saves sinners through his life, sufferings, death, and resurrection. Most useful for this are Psalm 51, Isaiah 53, John 3, Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 1:9, and Revelation 22:17. Talk about God’s willingness in Christ to save the greatest of sinners. Cite biblical examples, such as Adam, Manasseh, and Paul.
Describe Christ’s loveliness and kindness. Declare His compassion for the dying, even for the greatest of sinners, such as the thief on the cross. Then invite the patient to repentance and faith in Christ. Good chapters to use include Psalm 130, John 3, Hebrews 4 and 12, and James 2.
A word of caution: There is a world of difference between evangelizing and deceiving. We must not give false hope to a person who has not truly come to repentance, or who does not truly believe. The Lord condemns those who comfort the unbelieving and unrepentant people of this world with “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11). God will require their blood at our hands. Rather, we must lovingly tell a dying, unbelieving patient that God is ready to pardon and forgive, but persistent unbelief will keep a person even someone who is dying – from Christ and salvation. Happily, we may add that even this sin will be washed away through Jesus’ blood if it is brought to Him in confession and repentance.
While you are evangelizing, keep praying for the patient, but leave the outcome in God’s hands. Do not fall into the trap of telling the person whether or not you think he or she is saved. Even if the person directly asks you that question, suggest that it be taken up directly with the Lord, and say that this is a question that everyone must answer himself. Also, after the person has died, be cautious about mentioning a deathbed conversion in a funeral message, especially if the person’s life was not a testimony of saving grace. It is far wiser, in such cases, to silently entrust the matter to God.
If the patient is a believer, comfort him or her with Christ-centered themes, for Christ is the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25). Remind the person who Christ is, what He has done on Calvary, and what He is doing now at the right hand of the Father. Use Philippians 2:5-11 to show the riches of his states and natures. Speak of Christ’s strength to comfort the dying as prophet, priest, and king.
Show how precious and faithful he is. Tell how much pain He suffered for us and how death delivers us from earthly agony so we can be with Christ (John 14:3). Remind them of the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism that for the believer, death is “only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life” (Q. 42).
Then focus on the joy of heaven – the blessedness of being with the Triune God, the holy angels, and the redeemed. Describe the joy of knowing that even though the standing of believers is perfect with God now, their condition will finally match that standing in glory. They will live then the way they have wanted to live since they were regenerated – worshiping and glorifying God without sin.
Comfort the dying believer with familiar words from the Psalter, too, that stress comforting truths such as God’s covenant faithfulness or his gracious, caring hand of mercy such as
“Jehovah’s truth will stand forever; His covenant-bonds He will not sever” (425:5),
“In doubt and temptation I rest, Lord, in Thee
My hand is in Thy hand, Thou carest for me!
My soul with Thy counsel through life Thou wilt guide
And afterward make me in glory abide” (202:1).
Such words from songs well known from childhood often do more for the dying believer than all our other talking, reading, and praying.
For further advice on dealing with dying people, consult “The Consolation of the Sick,” in the liturgy of the Psalter, for a rich display of appropriate texts and themes for ministry to the sick.4 That, as well as Andrew Bonar’s The Visitor’s Book of Texts offer passages of Scripture to help you counsel and comfort the dying.5
Do not be surprised if those passages fail to ease a person’s depression, discouragement, or fear of dying, however. Don’t forget that Paul calls death the last enemy and the king of terrors. Moreover, physical deterioration and spiritual darkness usually walk hand-in-hand. It is a supernatural event of divine grace to meet a believer on the mountaintop of faith as he or she walks through the valley of the shadow of death. Though it is true that the best way to die well is to have lived well, many saints still struggle greatly with death.
Pray for wisdom to discern between spiritual fatigue due to physical pain and spiritual backsliding due to forsaking God. We must show compassion to one and confront the other. We must also take care not to make seniors feel guilty about the normal pattern of aging and dying, which may negatively impact their spiritual zeal. You have not come to add to suffering but to relieve that of a dying believer who is struggling to see “no man, save Jesus only” (Matthew 17:8).6 Sometimes a dying believer needs to be directed more to Scripture’s promises than to personal experiences, and to passages from the Psalter such as
“He hears the needy when they cry!
He saves their souls when death draws nigh!
This God is our salvation” (420:5).
Pray. If a patient has significant pain or is in danger of drifting off to sleep, pray at the beginning of a visit. Prayer is the most important part of the visit. If the pain continues, or if other relatives join you, pray again. It’s not uncommon for me to pray two or three times in one visit at the bedside of a dying person. After you leave the patient, you may want to pray with the relatives in another room.
If the patient is a believer, should a church leader pray for deliverance from death? I believe that early in the illness that request is appropriate in prayer, but the focus should be on the grace of divine healing, if it be God’s will. When the person is very near death, all quality of life is gone, and he or she is longing for death, however, prayer for deliverance through death may be uttered without reservation.
Be loving and compassionate. Don’t be afraid to take the dying patient’s hand, unless the patient feels uncomfortable with that. I sometimes hold the hand of a dying senior for the duration of the visit. Don’t resist if a mourning relative wants to hug you, either. And don’t be afraid to allow short spaces of silence as you grieve together. Stay calm, but don’t be afraid to shed tears with the loved ones, particularly if you are deeply moved by the suffering and death of the patient. Be warm and sincere in your words, your eyes, your hands, and your entire demeanor.
Avoid bad etiquette. Don’t speak about the patient’s physical condition to others in his or her presence, even if the person appears to be sleeping or unconscious. One never knows what the dying can hear. If someone initiates such conversation, guide them to a different topic, or indicate that you would like to move to another room.
Never sit on the patient’s bed, or stand above them when you could be sitting alongside in a chair. Sitting on the bed is a kind of trespassing, and may cause the patient added physical pain and suffering; standing implies dominance or haste. Be as close to the patient as possible. Be tactful, respectful, sober, yet natural. Don’t try to be humorous. And put away all self-centered comments. The patient – not you – is the most important person in the room.
Don’t inspire false hope of life, blunt the edge of providential warnings, or provide medical advice for which you are not trained. On the other hand, don’t express your every fear. Neither promise life nor predict death. There is one who is Lord both of death and life, who often removes when removal is least expected and restores when restoration is despaired of. We must not infringe upon his prerogative.
Don’t delay or avoid visiting. If you delay, you may be too late. If you avoid visiting, you come across as uncaring. A word is in order here to ruling elders: Some of you avoid visiting the dying on the fallacious grounds that you're not a teaching elder, that you're not qualified for the task, or because some may not value your visit as much as a minister’s visit. But James 5:14a says,
“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him.”
Your minister needs your assistance, your backup support, in visiting the dying. How can church members sympathize with you in the challenges of the eldership if you do not sympathize with them in their times of crisis? If you are not gifted to converse with the dying, you can at least read applicable words from Scripture, pray, and point them, simply and humbly, to the heavenly physician who can meet their every need. Deny yourself, and feed the afflicted church of God.
Ask others privately about the condition of the dying. If no family members are present, leave a card behind with your phone number and perhaps a little note to the relatives with a text or two from Scripture, then speak with a nurse or doctor. Explain that you are the patient’s pastor or elder and would like to know, if possible, the patient’s condition. Some medical people will tell you a lot, while others may not say much at all. Be grateful for what they tell you, and thank them for the information. As a spiritual counselor, your work complements that of medical people who minister to the body. At times, you may be asked for input on whether or not to tell a patient about the gravity of his condition,7 or how to sort through the difficult issues of when to do everything possible to keep a person alive and when to let go. When you return home, call the closest relative for a more thorough update, and pray together.
Visiting with the mourners
Receiving the Phone Call
Ask the closest relative to call you immediately if the patient suddenly “takes a turn for the worse.” When that call comes, day or night, get to the bedside as soon as possible. Tell the caller when you’ll be there. After you arrive, follow the guidelines given above. If death appears imminent, stay longer, perhaps an hour or more. Pray frequently – every 15 to 30 minutes – with all who are present.
If the patient does not pass away in your presence, let the relatives know you’d like to be called if matters get worse or the patient dies. Assure them that you will call in a few hours to see how things are going. Shake hands with each relative and friend prior to leaving, wishing them God’s strength and blessing.
If the loved one dies in your presence, give the mourners time to weep together. Never gloss over grief. Don’t give easy answers and pious clichés (“No need to weep because he is with Jesus now”) that can be abused to suppress important feelings. Let death be death. Express your sympathy, then call them to the Word of God as the greatest source of strength in need. Offer a few thoughts from the passage, stressing the comfort and joy of God’s sanctifying grace. Pray with compassion.
Before you leave, ask about funeral preparations. Would the family like your help? In most cases, that will prompt them to call the funeral home. You should leave shortly after that so the immediate family can have time alone together around the body of the loved one before the funeral director arrives.
When you leave, ask the closest relative to call you after funeral arrangements are made. I usually tell them I’d like to meet with the entire family about forty minutes before the first visiting hours so we can read Scripture and pray together. That helps set the tone for the visiting hours and funeral.
Often the funeral director, rather than the family, will call you about the hours of visitation and the funeral. Write down this information so you can accurately pass it on to your consistory and congregation. Tell the funeral director you’d like to meet with the family prior to visiting hours. That way he'll have chairs set up for that purpose.
Typically, you will not be present when a patient dies, and the family will not call you until after the body has been taken to the funeral home. In that case, pray with the person who calls, and ask him or her to contact the relatives to arrange for a pastoral visit in the funeral home immediately prior to visiting hours. If the caller is not the husband or wife of the deceased, call and pray with him or her as soon as possible. In some cases you may need to make an immediate visit. Most often, however, the widow or widower has so much to do that he or she prefers to meet you the following day prior to visiting hours.
Visiting with the family
Before visiting with the family at the funeral home, get a copy of the obituary from the newspaper or the funeral director. Familiarize yourself with the names of the relatives. Then come to the funeral home early, bringing your wife if possible. This visit is important, not only for expressing sympathy and for clarifying funeral arrangements, but also for establishing rapport with the mourning family. The contact will enable you to sense more fully the grief of the family and to have a better understanding of their needs. Such a visit may often prompt a pastor to choose a different text to preach on at the funeral.
Move toward the casket, shaking hands with family members on the way and expressing sympathy to each one. Pause as you view the body. Absorb the reality of death; its heaviness, finality, and curse. Then shake hands with the remaining relatives, expressing your sympathy.
As soon as possible, form a circle with chairs so you can visit with the family. Say a few words about their deceased loved one before turning to Scripture. Read a short passage and share several thoughts on it. Do not use notes. Aim more for comfort than examination during this visit. Pray for the family, for strength during the visitation, and for God’s blessing upon the funeral message. Pray that God will fill the empty place of their loss with His presence and sustain the family with His amazing grace.
If some of the relatives are not familiar with your way of conducting a funeral, briefly indicate that your emphasis, according to Reformed tradition, will be to speak to the living rather than about the dead. Ask if they'd like to sing a Psalm or two. Invite questions about the funeral. You may receive unusual questions, such as whether you are going to put their relative “in heaven,” but it’s better to answer such questions at this time rather than the day of the funeral.
Use the remaining time to allow the family to reminisce about their loved one. These memories can be touching and edifying, particularly if they recall some of the spiritual experiences of the deceased person; how his or her life exhibited godliness or God’s special grace, or what Scripture passages were most meaningful. Other comments made during this time can be disconcerting, such as “I have no idea how I can face the future; I don’t know what to do.” Or “What’s the use for me to go on living? I have nothing to live for.” Receive such comments with respectful silence, or with a simple acknowledgement that facing death is difficult. Unrealistic statements such as “He was an absolutely perfect husband” are hard to take, of course. So are negative pronouncements, such as “You know, Pastor, John left the truth so he is lost forever, and I sure hope you tell the people that!” Some people use grief to say ugly things like, “Jane, you sure were a lousy sister to my husband; you never treated him right – I hope you feel guilty now that he’s gone!” They can even direct it at you by saying, “So I suppose since John left your church, you are going to put him in hell?” Don’t overreact to such comments, nor feel that you have to respond to all of them. Look to God for wisdom. Remember Psalm 37:5-6.
In rare occasions there may be strong disagreement about funeral arrangements. Follow these guidelines:
- Try to get family members to work toward a compromise that violates no one’s conscience.
- If they can’t, follow the wishes of the deceased as expressed in his or her will.
- In the case of a minor, the parents' wishes should prevail.
- If the deceased was married, the spouse’s opinion takes precedence over that of surviving parents.
- Be true to the Word of God and your own conscience. If you don’t feel right about participating in a funeral that violates your convictions, respectfully suggest that someone else conduct the service.
If you can’t get these matters resolved in one meeting, set up another – either a special one to discuss weighty matters, or a few extra minutes prior to the funeral to take care of less important issues. Do not intrude even one minute into the visiting hours. If you do, the family will become restless and people will be waiting outside the closed doors.
The funeral and committal services
Leading the funeral service
Properly conducted, funeral services offer loving support to the mourning, provide a means of healing, reaffirm faith in the Triune God, strengthen believers and warn unbelievers, and honorably dispose of the body. So spend much time in prayer prior to a funeral, asking God for the right words to say.
Arrive at the funeral home at least twenty minutes early. Ask the funeral director for a quiet room where you can pray with the family. Sometimes the family needs this time to ask a few final questions about the funeral or to share a few more memories of the deceased one’s spiritual life. Respond to special requests graciously. Be short, warm, and compassionate in your prayer with the family. Focus on asking the Lord to strengthen everyone in the coming hour.
The entire service should be approximately 40-45 minutes and consist of the following:
Opening: 6 minutes. You might begin by saying, “We wish to commence this memorial service for [the name of the deceased] with the reading of Holy Scripture, from [book, chapter, and verses].” Use one to three readings. Read with expression, remembering the Bible is a living book. Keep the readings short, but select each with great care because each has the power to communicate hope, comfort, and warning specific to the audience’s needs. They can reveal how true believers confront the reality of death; its mystery and finality. They can offer understanding and recognition of a mourner’s feelings as well as what to do with those feelings. And they can relate to special circumstances, such as the loss of a child or of a young mother.
Here or at other points in the service, you may also wish to read well known or relevant passages from the Reformed Confessions, such as the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism or Article 37 of the Belgic Confession. You may also include the Apostles’ Creed, which is often read at the graveside of believers.
In the opening prayer, acknowledge the sovereign Lord as the One who gives and takes away life. Include petitions of confession and thanksgiving, but focus especially on intercession and submission. Mention the deceased by name. You may also refer to the deceased near the beginning of your prayer as “a dear husband, son, mother, grandfather, daughter,” or whatever primary relationships apply. Pray warmly and personally for the surviving widow or widower. Recognize the painfulness of death; do not disguise its bitterness. Confess its connection with our fall in Adam. Use prayer as God’s resource for working through grief rather than avoiding it. Pray for strength for the entire family, that they may mourn with true, godly sorrow, for such “shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Pray that all distractions may be set aside and that the solemn message of death may be applied by the Holy Spirit to the living.
Stress human frailty, weakness, and sinfulness. Pray that each person present may see the need to be born again, to be convicted that life is empty apart from Jesus Christ, and that we must fly to Him in faith and repentance.
Avoid these faults that often mar prayers at a funeral: excessive length, lack of preparation, undue loudness, excessive speed, and embarrassing impropriety.8
Personal introductory remarks: 3 minutes. Admit the difficulty of facing the death of a loved one. Address the widow or widower by name, and express a wish for Jehovah’s abiding strength for him or her. If the deceased person’s life did not clearly show the fruits of grace, do not address the question of his or her eternal destiny. If the person did show the fruits of grace, encourage the family by saying they do not need to sorrow as those that have no hope. Briefly mention some of the fruits, if you’d like, to glorify God’s grace, but do not eulogize the deceased. Salvation is only of grace; human honor has no place. Moreover, your message should focus on the spiritual condition of the mourners rather than on that of the deceased.
Speak to the children and grandchildren as well. Encourage them to seek the God of the Scriptures. Call them to repentance and faith if they do not know Christ. If they do know Him, challenge them to grow in the grace and knowledge of their Savior.
Text-based message: 30 minutes. An old German Reformed ordinance states that the funeral address should have three goals: to be “a public confession of the Christian hope of the resurrection, a lasting testimony of love, and an earnest reminder of the approaching hour of death.”9 To that we add that the message must proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ acts through events such as funerals. Ultimately, he holds the service, not we. He is the divine Host, and we are the guests. Like all worship, the funeral message must be centered in Christ. The Christian funeral is a witness to our faith in the living Christ, and not merely a memorial service for the person who died.
Therefore, select a short, striking text that covers the gospel basics and deals with life and death, resurrection, judgment, or heaven and hell from a Christ-centered perspective. Whether a believer or unbeliever is being buried, Christ must be proclaimed as victor over death and the guilt and power of sin. Many people at the funeral will have little understanding of what the gospel is. Some may never have heard it clearly preached. So preach a total Christ for a total sinner – the living Christ who reversed the effects of death by his resurrection. For believers who die in Christ, death is a passageway to victory, freedom, healing, and eternal life. Speak from the Word and from the heart. Maintain good eye contact with the bereaved; use few or no notes.
Speak slowly, especially if you have many seniors in your audience. Preach simply, warmly, earnestly, and experientially. Stress that saving faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ are essential.
Separate the precious from the vile. Balance warning and comfort. Do not assume that people you don’t know are saved or unsaved. Remember that nearly every funeral audience includes both believers and unbelievers. Offer warnings and comforts in a spirit of love.
Press the consciences of visitors with words like those of Isaiah 1:18:
“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
Like Paul, talk about righteousness, temperance, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:24-25). Make sure that no one in your audience can walk away saying, “I didn’t hear what I need to know to live in comfort and die in peace.”
As you close, address the family again. Wish them divine strength as they go to the cemetery and face the future. Assure them that with God, they can face the future with confidence, knowing that come what may, the Lord will never forsake them (Psalm 27:10; Psalm 138:7, 8).
Closing prayer: 4 minutes. Apply the message by praying for various groups of hearers. Pray for the family, that they will have the strength to witness the burial of their loved one. Contrast the bliss of eternal glory with the sorrow of eternal condemnation.
Singing (if desired): 5 minutes. If the family wants to sing a psalm, sing it at the end of the service. It will be a fitting finish. If the committal service is held at the funeral home, sing the psalm between your funeral message and the committal message. Cut back on the funeral message a bit to make time for the committal message, which should be 5-10 minutes. If the family wants to sing two songs, sing one at the beginning of the service and one at the end. If the family has selected music you don’t consider appropriate, tactfully encourage them to choose something else. Sometimes it helps to suggest that the music might offend visitors from their loved one’s church or from other churches. If the family has strong feelings about keeping the music, short of its being utterly heretical, allow it, remembering that a funeral is also a family service.
Discourage soloists and eulogies, if possible. Again, if the family insists, try to limit these and move them to the end of the service so they don’t detract from the funeral message. Suggest that persons who wish to offer a tribute to the deceased may be invited to speak at the fellowship hour, and arrange to have a microphone provided for this purpose.
Remember that a certain tension exists at funerals that you cannot erase. On the one hand, a funeral, like every other act of Christian worship, is for the church – it is not a private matter but a covenantal event in which the church is to focus upon the never-ending grace of her Triune God. The entire church is invited to attend. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the funeral is a family service, and therefore the family should have a say in the liturgy.
After the service, sit near the lectern while the funeral director dismisses the people. Do not stare at the people as they file out. When everyone but the family is gone, stand as they approach the casket. Do not intrude on this time of weeping and mourning. Let the director decide when to lead out the family. Usually people will not speak to you at this time; they are too immersed in their grief. Sometimes, though, a few will shake your hand, speak a few words of appreciation (or, on rare occasions, confrontation), or weep as they hug you. Be available at this point to do what’s needed. Let your emotions be natural and your words be few.
After the family leaves, view the body a final time. Follow the instructions of the morticians who will ask you to walk in front of the casket as it is carried to the hearse. Stand quietly to one side as the body is placed in the hearse. Then go to your car.
Conducting the committal service
Encourage the family to have the committal service at the graveside. Those services are more real and personal. The cemetery is a visual sermon to the mourners. Besides, as J. J. Van Oosterzee said, “It is appropriate and good that the church should speak the last word even at the grave of the departed.”10 Don’t resist, however, if they decide to have the committal service at the funeral home or in church.
On the way to the cemetery, ask your wife if you have forgotten anything important at the funeral that might be mentioned at the grave site. You can use that opportunity to mention people or points you might have inadvertently omitted.
At the cemetery, lead the casket from the hearse to the burying place. Stand on one side of the casket, several feet from the mourning family, near the head of the deceased. Keep your message short. If the weather is good, ten minutes of speaking and prayer is sufficient. Remember, the cemetery itself is already a “silent sermon.” If the weather is poor, make the talk shorter. Begin and end with the Word, but keep the readings brief and to the point.
Remember to project your voice more than ordinary, so that everyone can hear. Don’t use notes. Focus on a text that speaks of the resurrection, judgment, or eternity. Let the victory of Christianity sound clearly. Set forth Christ as the resurrection and the life. Close with a prayer that resonates with assurance of the resurrection and the necessity to be prepared for it. As mentioned above, you may also include the reading of the Apostles' Creed.
If the deceased was a veteran, an American flag is often draped over the casket. At the close of the service, the director will fold the flag and hand it to a family member. More complex military rites can follow the pastor’s closing prayer.
If the family wants to see the casket lowered into the ground, wait with them. Your presence will support them.
If there is no fellowship time afterward, shake hands with the family when the committal service is finished. Some mourners will follow your example. If there is a gathering, inform one of the children that you hope to be there. Don’t rush away from the graveside. Follow the lead of the family. Tell the surviving spouse that you'll visit him or her the following week.
If the committal service is at the funeral home or church, and no music is selected, make the transition from the funeral message to the committal message by simply telling the people that you will now conduct the committal service. Read a few verses of Scripture, speak for a few minutes on a different text than that of your funeral message, and close the service with prayer. At the funeral of a believer, you may wish to use the classic formula for the Committal from the Book of Common Prayer (1662) of the Church of England:
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto Himself the soul of our dear brother (or sister) here departed: we therefore commit his (or 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; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto His glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby He is able to subdue all things to Himself.
Attending the fellowship hour
If possible, sit with close relatives of the deceased during the fellowship hour after the funeral. Center upon the needs and memories of the mourners; listen and empathize. Avoid a lighthearted spirit even if it prevails around you. You may be susceptible to that temptation, especially in the relief of having finished your message. Resist it. Strive, instead, to engage in meaningful conversation. A friend has just died; a serious message has been delivered. People tend to be vulnerable at this time.
Sometimes the family will ask you to close the gathering with prayer. Use that opportunity to commend your hearers to the grace of God. Don’t stay too long; 30-45 minutes is sufficient. When you leave, shake hands with the surviving spouse and children and wish them God’s comfort and peace.
Don’t schedule pastoral work immediately after leading a funeral. Funerals are emotionally draining. When you return home, update your pastoral record.
Keeping careful records of funerals will help your consistory clerk and prepare you for the congregational overview on New Year’s Eve. After the funeral, ask yourself questions like these:
- Did I affirm death’s power and deal with it realistically, both as the wages of sin for all men and as the passage to eternal life for believers?
- Did I proclaim Jesus Christ to every hearer and present the hope to be found in his death and resurrection?
- Did I present God’s character in a way that was helpful and comforting to believers who were mourning?
- Did I warn the unbeliever to repent and take refuge in Jesus Christ?
- Did I preach the way of salvation – how the Holy Spirit works in sinners’ lives – as well as the Christ of salvation?
- Did I show how the Christian faith can help a person mourn, yet not as those who have no hope?
- Did I present death in a way that fosters deep feelings about its finality? A due sense of how swiftly life passes, and how soon we all must die?
- Did I reach out with compassion to the needs of the bereaved?
- Did I proclaim blessing to the righteous and woe to the wicked?
- Did I tailor the service to the needs of the family?
- Did I glorify God by being faithful to his Word?
Following-up with pastoral visitation
Visit the mourning widow or widower one week after the funeral. You will often find them most needy at this time, when the reality of death is beginning to register. Let the mourning spouse reminisce. Don’t rush the visit. Persons experiencing grief need time to express their hurt as Job did. Acknowledge the sense of loss and the burden of loneliness. Then offer the balm of Gilead through the Word of God.
Stress how only God can fill the empty place in their lives. Lead the mourner to a deeper understanding of the biblical view of death and resurrection. Encourage the person to build on what you said at the funeral.
You might offer the person a book. I like to give widows John A. James’s The Widow Directed to the Widow’s God; to widowers, James Buchanan’s Comfort for the Afflicted, or James W. Alexander’s Consolation for the Suffering People of God.
Continue to visit the mourners regularly, depending on their need, then follow visits up with periodic phone calls and prayer support. Build upon the foundation laid during the prefuneral calls and the funeral itself. As much as possible, let your ministry or eldership reflect James 1:27,
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
Salting all with prayer
Ministry to the dying and mourning can be a valuable experience. Our calling allows us to offer comfort in Christ Jesus to the brokenhearted. Be much in prayer throughout the entire process. Pray for the dying, the mourning, and yourself. Pray for a warm, caring heart that reflects the ministry of our High Priest (Hebrews 4:15), remembering that when we show mercy to sick, dying, or mourning believers, we are showing mercy to Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46).
Remember too, that God often uses death to lead relatives closer to himself. This touching story often encourages me to be faithful in pastoral ministry, even under trying circumstances:
A godly seven-year-old girl was on her deathbed. Her Dad, an unbeliever with whom the Spirit was striving, stroked her hair, and said, “Honey, wouldn’t you rather stay here on earth for a while so that you can spend more time with Daddy and Mommy?” “No, Daddy,” she said. “But why not?” he asked. “Do you want to know the truth, Daddy?” she asked. “Yes, of course,” he replied. “Well, Daddy,” the girl said, fighting back tears, “I’ve noticed that ever since I’ve been sick, you’ve been praying more and reading the Bible more. And you see, Daddy, not only do I want to be with Jesus, but even if there were no heaven and no hell, and I could believe that my death would only bring you closer to Jesus, then I would want to die. You see, Daddy, anything that brings you closer to Jesus – even my death – is worth it to me.”
Finally, remember that we too will need to be pastored by Christ and church leaders as we approach the Jordan. By God’s grace, may the day of our death be better than the day of our birth. May we experience the dying grace spoken of in Psalm 73,
“Thou hast holden me by my right hand.
Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but thee?
and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee” (vv. 23-25).
So we shall live and die happily, enjoying the comfort to be found only in our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.