Preparing and Preaching the Funeral Sermon

by Rev. Daniel Coffin

You just woke up, and you are racing to sort out and capture the thoughts flooding your mind. Today is the funeral you have been asked to lead. The circumstances of this service are unusually difficult because you have known and loved the deceased for years, and you are experiencing your own grief. Sadness overwhelms you as you acknowledge the truth – you do not want to deliver this funeral sermon. Welcome to the real-world Pastor; we do not get to choose when someone dies, so we do not get to schedule the difficult tasks of ministry. If you are reading this article, I suspect that you are a pastor, and in your heart, you know the importance of leading a family group through the time of their final earthly goodbye.

Ironically, I woke up just now with my mind doing the very thing described above, except this time, the thoughts were about writing this article. Many good things came back to me as I reflected on the multitude of times when I sat down to prepare a service and the sermon for a funeral. As pastors, we must keep in mind the importance of ministering to all who will attend the funeral. My goal for this article is to share some insights from experience with the hope of assisting you in your endeavors. There is no expert source to turn to for help, only the experiences of others who have walked this path.

It is important to begin with the attitude that God has brought you to this task. With that in mind, remember that God will guide you through it. I approach the process in three steps: meeting with the family, preparing the sermon, and preaching the sermon. Each step is significant and progressive as you build on the prior step. During the meeting, you will gather information. Then, while preparing the sermon, you will draw from the information gathered in the meeting. Finally, you preach the sermon using the rapport you established with the family.  Your manner and tone should evoke sincerity and comfort.

As the funeral pastor, you will be looked to for comfort and a sense of dignity as God’s representative. The Apostle Paul reminded the church at Ephesus about “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Later in the same passage, Paul said our words are to be “good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (verse 29). It has been my experience that some family members will share things that, while true, do not build up those who will hear them. Use discretion while talking to them by acknowledging their grief and guiding the conversation to the moment at hand.

Prayer is the most important aspect of these steps. As pastors preaching the Gospel, we want to communicate God’s truth and love during the service. Seeking God’s leading throughout the three steps keeps us focused on our purpose, ministering to the grieving. 

Meeting with the Familypray before you go.

I addressed the initial contact in my earlier article, “Pastoring Our People through Grief.” Now set a time and place to talk about their thoughts and needs regarding the service.  Personally, I like to meet within the next day or two to minister to the grieving members and to plan the service. This is the time when the grief is strongest, so it is a good time to be with them for comfort. Set a time that allows for the largest gathering of family and close friends who may wish to be involved. Remember, every time you are with grieving family members, you are ministering God’s love and grace to them.

During the meeting, I have several goals. Acknowledging their grief and helping the family process their grief are vital objectives. Keep in mind that no two people grieve alike. You may encounter people who are not ready to talk but are willing to “sit in” on this time. Set the stage by introducing yourself because, more than likely, there will be people there who do not know you. Try to make connections as to how each person is related to the deceased. This is a time of informal chatting, so relax and follow the lead of the group.

Another goal I have is to get the family and friends talking about their loved one to help them talk about that person, even as it hurts to do so. People will open-up as you guide them in conversation and as you give them permission to grieve. This is particularly important, do not force the conversation; guide it along gently. As people see that you are comfortable hearing them, they will enter the process of joint grief. Some people will only grieve privately, while others will grieve jointly. Not everyone will talk openly in a group setting, but they may be helped in their grief just by listening.

To begin the sharing, use open-ended questions to guide them. Keep in mind; you will be gathering information helpful for your preparation step. You might ask those present to “brainstorm” single words that describe the loved one. Capture their words as fast as they come; words are informative. If folk start to tell stories here, gently keep the focus on single words with the assurance that you will gather stories shortly. This discipline is necessary so that no one person dominates the sharing. As the words wind down, ask for things like their loved one’s nicknames, hobbies, special skills they had, their involvements in the church, community, at work, or in their military service. Finally, ask for one brief remembrance from each person who is willing to share. Take good notes while doing all of this, this material is what is important to the family right now, and it will help you later.

Preparing the Sermonpray before you write.

The length, style, and content of your sermon will depend on what the family wants and what they have shared. Some people want to have a lengthy time of remembering and a thoughtful sermon for those non-believers who will attend. Other families want something brief but to the point. I have attended funerals where five minutes of preaching seemed like an hour and others when an hour passed like five minutes. People will relate to your sincerity and compassion.

Your message should transition from any sharing by family and friends with your “eulogy,” taken from either your personal relationship with the deceased or information from the family meeting. Gauge the time you spend on this portion based on how much time was taken by the sharing before you. Your thoughts are meant to lead into your message of comfort and hope.

Begin your sermon by outlining what you wish to share. While you will be sharing some Scripture, you are not building an expository sermon. Highlight the sorrow of grief, questions that have no answers, and the loss to each one present. Pick a theme for the sermon and develop it well. Again, brevity can be effective. Include in the sermon any Scriptures you gathered from the meeting, aspects of the deceased’s personal testimony of faith in Christ (if applicable), and in the case where that person left instructions for this very event. As much as possible, use their words. There is no more effective message to the living than words from the very person being honored. Be sensitive, admit your own grief, and talk to the people gathered, not at them. Your sermon can draw them to God or leave them cold toward the Gospel.

If you were given a Bible verse that the deceased loved or a favorite hymn, use that in your message. Focus the message to be about God’s care for the living. When all else is said and done, there is nothing you can do for the deceased, but there is great hope for the living.

Preaching the Sermonpray before you speak.

There is not much left to share for this step. You have prepared the message, God has prepared the hearts, and now God will do the healing in the hearts of the grieving. Your demeanor and delivery are especially important, not only in the words you speak, but people will be watching you carefully and taking your cue on how to react to this death and their reaction to the reality of their mortality. The second biggest thing impacting us during a funeral is being face to face with our own mortality. Hebrews 9:27 speaks to this: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…” No one can stop death, but each can prepare for it by way of God’s gift of Salvation.

Do not avoid the pain of death; preach hope for the living. If the deceased was a believer, remind people that their hope of seeing the loved one again is only possible by the same relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ. The Gospel is that very real hope.

Observe your audience, particularly the immediate family. Be sensitive to their pain; remember that at the end of the service comes the burial, and that is a time of finality. Convey to them that Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, His dear friend. Express the fact that grief relates directly to love. The greater the depth of our love, the deeper our grief will be. Therefore, the only way to avoid grief would be to never love, to never care about anyone. We know that idea is impossible and undesirable to even consider.

Finally, I have a caution for you. A funeral is not about your personal agenda; it is a time for the family and friends. Respect the desires of the family as much as you can. You will have ample opportunity to minister the Gospel again during your follow-up with the family. Be the arms, the ears, and the heart of God as you address those gathered. We cannot take away anyone’s grief, but we can share it in love.

My prayer for you as you preach a funeral sermon is that God will fill you with His Spirit, and you will manifest the glory of His love – even in the presence of death and sorrow. The words of my beloved mentor ring in my ears as I close this article. “Go and give them Jesus!”