These notes are based on part of a training course for elders and other leaders in my church when I was a pastor. They are a personal reflection on this important area of ministry.
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The church which I was a pastor of for much of my life started in our home as a house church when I was 36 - before that I was a scientist and had no pastoral training. The beginning of a church was very exciting but I soon found that there were interesting challenges! A member of our church lost his mother and asked me to take her funeral. I didn't know the mother and had no idea where to start taking a funeral! I could have easily bottled out and suggested that he approached a recognised denomination or relied on the duty minister at the crematorium. I did, however, believe that our little house church was a real church and that we should be able to do such things (yes marriages as well) with no need to hand over to the religious professionals. So I went to see a local baptist pastor who gave me some advice and I looked to see what other denominations did for funerals. Then I took my first funeral! Since then I have taken funerals of people of all ages and have found them challenging but rewarding. The most difficult ones I have taken were my own younger brother, a teenage boy, a young mum, and a foetus.
There is no special qualification to take a funeral. Anyone can take the ceremony. It can be a minister, elder, friend or relative. It is certainly best if you are close to the person who died or to their relatives - the whole thing is much more personal. Often you will be a mourner yourself as well. There are, of course, legal requirements about the care and disposal of dead bodies, graves etc. and this is usually dealt with by professional undertakers and the staff at a burial site or crematorium.
The following makes the assumption that you may be taking the funeral but some of the information may be helpful if your are supporting the family, taking part in a funeral, if you are a family member, or if you are planning your own funeral! These notes were written from a non-denominational Christian perspective in the UK. Of course there are many other ways of arranging funerals by people of other nationalities, different faiths or of no faith. There are an increasing number people in the UK who choose to have non-religious or humanist funerals.
There are many of ways to arrange a Christian funeral - including:
- Church service followed by burial in the church yard. This is the traditional type you often see on movies!
- Church service followed by burial elsewhere. This is necessary if the church does not have an adjacent burial ground or if the church yard is full and has no more plots available. It may also be that the family want a burial in a particular place or a special type of graveyard such as a natural one.
- Church service followed by short ceremony in a crematorium chapel.
- Crematorium Chapel only. The whole funeral is conducted in one place. There are often restrictions on the length of service - usually half an hour. With careful planning, it can still be a very meaningful event.
- Cemetry Chapel followed by burial in the adjacent graveyard. Again there are often restrictions on the length of service in the chapel but there is more time at the graveside.
- Private burial or cremation followed by a church memorial service later without the coffin. This may enable more people to attend the memorial service but there is less involvement since there is no coffin! This method is sometimes used for public personalities with the memorial some time later.
1) Visit the grieving family members
This is a first very important step. Hopefully you will have a close relationship with the person who died or with a close relative. It is important for your visit to be relaxed, informal, friendly and sympathetic. The relatives may want to talk with you about the deceased and the events leading up to the death. If it is appropriate, you may use the opportunity to make notes about the names of significant friends and relatives, the life of the deceased and especially any events or stories which you could use in a funeral service. You may decide that this information should be collected at a later date. You need to give plenty of time, not appear rushed and have a listening ear! At this stage you may begin to learn what the family expect at the funeral.
2) Meet undertaker with family members
I have usually offered to visit the undertaker with the family to offer support and advice. Usually the family have been very thankful for this and it has enabled me to be fully aware of the arrangements. It's best not to say to much unless you are asked!
The following matters may be considered in discussions between the family and the undertakers:
- Will it be a burial or a cremation?
- Funeral time and location - this will be influenced by the availablity of family, churches, buildings, the undertakers, the crematorium or the burial site.
- Funeral details
- Coffin type - this is always a difficult time as the relatives are presented with glossy brochures with pictures of coffins and prices!
- Transport - as well as the hearse, will they require other cars provided by the undertakers - how many, cost etc?
- Type of ceremony
- Who will be taking the funeral? Will there be a fee? (I have generally refused a fee - if insisted upon, I have asked it to be paid to my church)
- What music will you want at the funeral - traditional hymns, modern songs, performed songs, recorded tracks etc.? This is more relevant to the undertaker if you are holding your funeral in a cemetry or crematorium chapel.
- Will you need an organist for the traditional hymns - often these days, recorded accompaniment music is used.
- If you are setting up live music in a crematorium or cemetry chapel, how long will you need to set up etc? There isn't usually much time!
- Are the relatives providing flowers for the coffin? - again there may be some glossy brochures.
- Do you want people to give flowers or would you prefer them to donate to some charity?
- Newspaper notification - this is often sorted out by the undertaker - they will want to know what words to include.
- Who will produce the funeral programme?
- Will the relatives want to view the body in a chapel of rest before the funeral?
- Disposal of ashes? (usually dealt with later)
- Headstone? (usually dealt with later)
- Total price of funeral? - When is payment required? etc.
3) Further visits to the family
- Make more notes about the person and their life
- Firm up details of the funeral ceremony
- Are any family members participating in the funeral service?
- Is there anything else the family wish you to include in the service?
- Requested hymns, songs, music, poems, readings etc.
- Programme - photos?
4) Prepare the programme
- Prepare the funeral programme in draft and show to the family for their approval before printing it out.
- It may include information about the location of a gathering after the funeral in a home, hotel or pub and any donations to charities etc.
- Contact undertaker about any unresolved issues.
5) Prepare yourself for the funeral
- You need to prepare yourself spiritually, psychologically and administratively for the funeral.
- Prepare your comments about the person
- Prepare your address/talk
- Think through the programme
- You may find it helpful to visit the body at the chapel of rest if appropriate - possibly with family member
- Visit the church, funeral chapel, burial ground, crematorium to familiarise yourself with the environment
6) The funeral
- Arrive in good time to greet attendees. Show them where they can wait, toilets etc. The chapel may be in use by someone else when you arrive.
- Usher people who will not be following the coffin - undertakers often help with this.
- Sort out your own things, papers, tablet, orders of service etc.
- Make sure that arrangements for music are in place etc.
- Be clear where various people are going to sit as far as possible. Make sure family seats are reserved. Chapel staff and undertakers will help with this.
- Meet hearse and other cars when they arrive.
- Greet the family warmly - remember that it is a very emotional time for them.
- Be ready to lead the coffin in. Usually you first, then the coffin carried by undertakers or family members, then family. Your job is to eventually lead the coffin to its final resting place!
7) Content of the funeral service
These are only suggestions. Discuss with the family. Some of these items may take place in different locations.
The ideas here assume that the deceased person is a Christian believer. You may wish to modify what is said if it is not clear that the person was a believer.
# Entry with coffin
- You will probably lead the coffin into the funeral service
- There may be music or Bible readings
- As people stand and the coffin is in place - you may read some Bible verses - eg John 11:25-26, Job 1:21, Lam 3:22-23, John 3:16, Rom 8:38-39, 1 Cor 2:9
- Invite people to sit
- Welcome everyone to the service
- Explain what will happen eg:
- To remember A’s life
- To pay our last respects to A
- To commend A to the grace of God
- To honor his/her body
- And to comfort those who mourn
- Introduction eg "You will have known A in various ways as family, friends, work colleagues......
# Songs Music
- You may have music before the service and after
- During the service you may have hymns, songs, recordings, performed songs, favourite tracks etc.
- Popular traditional hymns may be more suitable for old people eg:
- The Lord's my shepherd
- Abide with me
- Amazing grace
- The day thou gavest Lord, is ended
- How great thou art
- Younger people will probably prefer more modern Christian songs
- The family may wish to have some performed songs or mp3 tracks without congregation participation
# Bible Readings
- Here are some possible readings: Ps 23:1-6, 90:1-17, John 14:1-6, 1 Cor 15:50-58, John 6:35-40, 11:17-27, Rom 8:31-39, 14:7-9, Philippians 3:10-21, 1 Thess 4:13-18, Mark 10:13-16 (funeral of a child)
# Summary of Life
- Life history, birth, childhood, education, achievements, relationships, family, jobs, amusing stories, faith, Christian progress, special events, illness, death etc.
- This could be printed in the programme if you wish to save time in the service.
# Contributions by Family Members and Friends, Eulogies
It is usually good to involve as many people as possible.
# Talk / Address / Sermon
- It is good to talk about the faith of the person who had died if possible.
- Make sure that you present a biblical picture of death and resurrection and that you manage, however briefly, to present the gospel.
- A funeral is a time when people are faced with their mortality and a good time for them to reflect upon eternal issues. It is your task as a Christian minister to present the gospel clearly.
- At the funeral of a child it is helpful to rely on the fact that Jesus welcomed children - the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.
- You can get other people to pray
- Thank God for the life and qualities of the person who has died and their influence on loved ones.
- Thank God for their faith and trust in God
- Pray for comfort for loved ones - mention close relatives etc. by name.
- Generally protestants do not pray for the soul of departed ones since we believe that their fate is sealed at death (no purgatory and there is no way their salvation can now be influenced).
- The family may wish to include the Lord’s Prayer which enables some participation.
Possible prayer before Committal
Some orders of funeral have a prayer something like this before the Committal:
Heavenly Father, you give us new life in Jesus Christ. We thank you that A had good faith in Jesus Christ and we confidently entrust him/her to your merciful keeping, waiting for the resurrection of the dead. Amen
# The Committal
- If it is a burial, you will now need to lead the coffin from the chapel to the burial site before the Committal. If it is a cremation, you will usually continue in the same chapel.
- In a burial, the person taking the funeral usually stands at the head end of the grave. The coffin is lowered into the grave. Speak loudly and clearly outside so that everyone can hear you.
- The words of the committal are said as a fairly final act over the coffin in the grave or in the crematorium chapel.
- In a crematorium chapel, you may need to press a button to close curtains around the coffin as you say the committal! Some prefer to have no curtain and just to leave the coffin in view for people to touch etc. before they leave.
- You may wish to surround the committal statement with readings or bible verses. This is possible before Ps 103:8-17
- This is a typical committal statement
We have entrusted A to God’s merciful keeping, and we now commit his/her body to the ground (or to be cremated) – 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 died, was buried and rose again for us. Amen
- I often continue here with a Bible reading such as Rev 21:1-7 and Rev 22:1-5
With a verse of hope, resurrection, blessing eg Ps 16:11, 2 Cor 13:14, Num 6:24-26, Jude 24-25
Pass on any family information about refreshments and any donations. Stay around afterwards to spend time with family and friends.
7) After the Funeral
Try to see the family a short time after the funeral to give any extra support and to offer further comfort. There are a lot of adjustments after losing loved ones. The funeral is only the beginning!