I asked my former church leader Canon Stephen Leeke this question:
Because I am a Christian and am occasionally found doing ‘religious stuff’, I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?
In a previous post, Stephen pointed out:
- All human life is precious and God loves us all.
- I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
This second post adds two more principles:
- I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
- A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.
I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ
The assumptions I bring to any funeral are Christian ones. I can’t help it. They knew that when they asked me. And the words I use will be scriptural ones. I won’t assume they agree with me, but I will speak about the hope that is in me. The CofE service is again helpful here, giving prayers which are full of meaning and express the thoughts that many have but in a Christian language.
It also helps by separating the ‘Words of Tribute’ from ‘The Sermon’. The tribute comes at the very beginning of the service and is about the life and achievements, character and qualities of the deceased. The sermon comes after the Bible reading (a requirement). It is best done as a short explanation of the chosen reading and the good news of Jesus.
The service can take the congregation from mourning their loss of an individual to a realisation of what faith in Jesus has to offer them. It ends with a powerful prayer commending him or her to God our merciful creator and redeemer, because it is God who will judge.
A funeral is primarily for the living
The minister’s job is to minister to the congregation there. The service should help them. I usually say at the beginning:
We have come here today to remember before God our brother/sister N;
and to give thanks for his/her life;
To pay our respects to someone who was important to us [and to our community];
To pray for those who mourn and to comfort one another in our grief;
To consider our own lives in the light of death and to prepare ourselves to meet our maker;
To commend him/her to God our merciful redeemer and judge;
and to commit his/her body to be buried/cremated.
I think this gives a right balance.
There is usually an enormous sense of relief and completion after a good funeral and often a desire to do better. I have known people coming to faith through the words they have heard.
One congregation for a funeral I did included a man who had unwittingly caused a young girl to commit suicide, and the girl’s father, who had vowed to kill him. I spoke strongly and prayed about forgiveness and was overjoyed to witness the two embracing after the service. A good funeral can bring about real healing.