It would be difficult to estimate the number of funerals I have officiated or assisted in over the past 24 years. I can tell you most assuredly, it has been far more than I would have preferred.
Funerals are always a challenge for pastors, but the challenge is not always the same. Sometimes the person who has died is someone I know well and care about deeply. These are difficult because I am emotionally involved in the grieving process along with the family and friends. At other times preaching the funeral is challenging because I don’t know the person very much if at all. When these occasions arise I must depend on those who know the deceased well to give me much needed information so that the service isn’t impersonal. Even when I have gotten a good number of facts, I still feel a little insecure sharing personal information of which I have no personal connection.
Pastors are called to not only preach the gospel on Sunday mornings but to care for the members under our charge. We respond in compassion to those who are hurting and step forward to speak words of comfort and hope in times when one of our flock dies. It is a difficult time but it is also an honor to celebrate the homegoing of one of God’s children.
There are those times, however, when pastors are called upon to preach the funeral of a person whose eternal destiny is not known. Here we tread carefully. We do not want to be dishonest or misleading in any way, nor do we want to be seen as condemning and uncaring. I have discovered that it is best to highlight the good things in the life of the deceased but not to give the family false assurances. No pastor has the authority to damn a soul to hell or usher a soul into heaven. A person’s eternity is not affected by the words spoken at a funeral but by that person’s willingness or unwillingness to receive salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
I have learned a lot about people because of my role as pastor. One of those lessons is that people know if you’re exaggerating or falsifying information in the funeral message. To stand up and declare the person in the casket to have been a devoted husband and loving father should only be said if it is true. How embarrassing would it be to have the widowed wife walk forward during the ceremony and open to the casket to see if she had stumbled into the wrong funeral?
I have also learned a lesson that I have applied to my own life – I write my eulogy with each day I live. How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? What would I want my wife and children to say about me? What would I want my friends and church members to say about me? What would I want the community around me to say? And here’s the hard question – What am I doing today to make sure what they remember is both honorable and Christlike?
So I end with two challenges. First, don’t let your family and friends have to guess where you will spend eternity. We are saved by God’s grace through belief in Jesus. Salvation is a gift we must receive. If you are uncertain whether or not you possess this greatest of all gifts, find a pastor or trusted Christian friend to help you understand what it means to follow Jesus and how you can have eternal security.
Second, write out your eulogy by how you live. Think about what you would like to have said at your funeral and live in such a way that it can be said with integrity. Be that faithful spouse, that loving father, that trustworthy employee, that honest boss, that supportive friend, that faithful church member. We never know when the day will come that we will breath our last breath, but we know it is coming one day. Live today, not in fear of death, but with an awareness of the frailty of life.