Mark Broadway writes: Very few people in pastoral ministry will not find themselves being involved in funeral ministry, but I have learned that a number of clergy either do not preach at funerals at all, or offer a very short and generic message with the same content in every funeral. In his book, There is Hope: Preaching at Funerals (2021) published by IVP, Paul Beasley-Murray challenges us to preach hope, beginning with the revelation of Jesus in the scriptures—hope that is fixed on a future redemption, hope that can transform this life. He does so by sharing 20 short pieces of commentary and 20 short sermons.
The Beginning of Pastoral Ministry
Back in 2015 I was in training to be a vicar. Mark Clavier, now Residentiary Canon of Brecon Cathedral, was my personal tutor where I was being formed (something a little like a sausage in a machine) at St Michael’s Theological College in Llandaff. Mark had a wealth of pastoral experience before he turned to the academic life and so we would listen for those moments of wisdom that seemed to transcend the books. He told us what I imagine a lot of young clergy-wannabes are told: to expect that after ordination funeral ministry would become one of the most vital and deeply loved parts of our vocation. I did not believe him. I was going into ministry to preach, teach, and rebuke—to celebrate the sacraments of the New Covenant, and to see congregations grow. Although I knew that funeral ministry was a vital part of looking after a parish, still I thought ‘let the dead bury their own dead’. I was naïve, to say the least; and it didn’t take long for me to have my whole perspective changed.
Engaging with death changes our ministry. Later that year, my grandmother died. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a week off studies to sit with her as she approached the end. This was the beginning of the making of my pastoral ministry. I remember the first funeral I took solo, and I remember it vividly. The lady had been a sheep farmer, but I chose not to speak on the 23rd Psalm, but instead on the many rooms of the Father’s house, inviting the family to remember the times they had all piled into the huge many-roomed farmhouse for Christmas. Getting to know the family through visits before, and after, her death caused me to see not only the great importance of funeral ministry, but also to feel the powerful way it worked on my own heart. In There is Hope, Paul Beasley-Murray shares something of why funeral ministry is so important to him, and how those values work themselves out in funeral preaching. Whatever we might think of the 20 sermons that he provides in his work, we must be grateful that he has opened up the conversation, and shone a light into this neglected area of ministry.
Commentary and Sermons
I have written many funeral sermons and eulogies since my first. In five-and-a-half years of ordained ministry, I think I have conducted something like 50 funerals; but until now I have not read anything written so distinctively for preaching at funerals. At best, preaching at Occasional Offices (baptism, weddings, and funeral—the classic Hatch, Match, and Dispatch trio) is seen as a subset of something else larger and more important—either pastoral care or evangelism. Beasley-Murray takes funeral preaching seriously on its own terms. I wish I had this book available to me at the start of my ministry; I think it would have made me less rigid in my reaching, and more capable of offering bespoke sermons, suited to each given family.
The book is laid out in a very useful way, with each short chapter beginning with a passage of scripture which a minister may choose to preach from at a funeral. Aside from the introduction and conclusion, the chapters and corresponding biblical passages are divided up into sections: Hope in the Gospels, Hope in the Letters of Paul, Hope in the Rest of the New Testament, and Hope in the Old Testament. The writing is weighted towards gospel passages, and so one might wish that more attention was paid to the Old Testament. Yet I think that Beasley-Murray is right to begin with, and give his focus to, the words of Jesus. Although the gospels are not more inspired than any other biblical book, there is a unique opportunity presented when we hear the gospels read to hear plainly Jesus make his wonderful and life-giving promises to us directly. Moreover, I think that those who have a passing or loose connection to Church will be more likely to be able to appreciate and understand who mean when we mention ‘Jesus’ whereas other biblical characters may need additional explanation or context-setting. My anxiety when preaching at a funeral is that too much clutter, or caveats, or scene setting, can leave a distraught family feeling frustrated and as though their time is being wasted. I think it is instructive to remember that unlike those who come on a Sunday, or even those who come to a wedding, those who come to a funeral would very much rather not be there.
Each chapter of the book then begins with a passage of scripture, which Beasley-Murray gently exegetes before offering a sample sermon. Both the commentary and the sermon are brief, with each chapter being typically fewer than 10 pages you may work through several in one sitting as I did, or work through the book slowly in the style of reading a devotional text. The commentaries are interesting, and frequently contain various allusions, illustrations, and examples of varied translations. Often, attention will be drawn to a particular word in the Greek, and a little work will be done drawing out meanings implicit in the tense or mood—although this is often quite gentle, and not detailed. The commentaries serve as a preamble to the sermon that is given, and probably wouldn’t work as textual or canonical criticism or commentary separate from what follows.
All the sermons that are offered sit within a particular style, which possibly represents something of Beasley-Murray’s own tradition and experience. They are not eulogies in the sense that they do not convey much biographical information, and most articulate explicitly that a detailed tribute to the life of the deceased has been given elsewhere in the service. In my experience of preaching at funerals, which is admittedly less than that of the author, this is true roughly half of the time. Frequently, I am expected to deliver both an expansive biographical tribute and a sermon. In these cases, unless there is a particular reason to keep the parts separate, I have found it helpful to do both in one piece of writing. This gives me the opportunity to allow the story of the deceased’s life to illustrate and punctuate my gospel message. Beasley-Murray does this but only in the briefest way, acknowledging that the life-story is given elsewhere and his job is to give a message of hope.
Likewise, the majority of the funerals to which we are introduced in the book are those of devout church attending Christians, and that has not been my experience of funeral ministry. My guess is that this represents the differing experiences of Anglican vicars and Free Church pastors. What is said in the text about ministry to those on the fringes, or even outside, of church is helpful—but I would have liked to have heard more. The content of the sermons which we are offered is good, sometimes strikingly so. The homilies are clear, warm, and engaging and something of the authors gentle humour often comes through in a way that I think is both helpful and appropriate for funerals.
Beasley-Murray is clear that he does not intend the reader to copy his sermons verbatim. I do worry that some preachers might want a proforma sermon, where you simply place the deceased’s name in the blanks and go. This book is not that. Rather we are asked to see Beasley-Murray’s sermons as examples of how we might preach faithfully, clearly, and compassionately about the truth of the gospel and the glories that await us in the life to come in the context of funerals. To that end, I think the book is excellent.
It has encouraged me in two ways. First, to continue to preach proper gospel sermons at funerals; second, to broaden the range of scriptures that I read and preach from at funerals. More than simply encouraging, I feel this book has also equipped me to undertake both of those tasks. First, he outlines clear pastoral reasons for making the gospel offer, albeit in a contextual and appropriate way. And to the second point, although when we read the Bible frequently, and dare I say formulaically, it can be difficult to envisage using a passage in a pastoral context where we might customarily use another; Beasley-Murray’s work challenges this habit.
For further resources on conducting and preaching at funerals, see these Grove booklets:
Mark Broadway is vicar of a seaside parish in Wales, where in his spare time he volunteers as a member of the lifeboat crew. He is also assistant chaplain to the Princess of Wales Hospital. His first book, Journeying With God in the Wilderness, will be available November 2023.