What to preach at a funeral?

F00B362B-7B4B-4D7B-BB3F133348747762The previous post, including a competition to identify a quotation, was prompted by my reading the next Grove Worship booklet, How to Prepare and Conduct a Funeral by Charles Chadwick and Phillip Tovey from Oxford Diocese. Aimed primarily at Readers as well as other licensed lay ministers, it is an excellent guide to the whole process of visiting, planning, conducting a funeral and preaching at it.

In relation to the sermon, it provides some really thoughtful material that considers the purpose of preaching, options for preaching strategy, and an interesting and challenging checklist.

The Roman Catholic Order of Christian Funerals (1991) is more definite in its direction on the funeral sermon (which it calls a homily) and we might see it as helping to expand the brief note from Common Worship on the sermon:

27. A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings at the vigil service…Attentive to the grief of those present, the homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord, as proclaimed in the Scripture readings. The homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand that the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life and death of the deceased and that these mysteries are active in their own lives as well. Through the homily members of the family and community should receive consolation and strength to face the death of one of their members with a hope nourished by the saving word of God. (pp 8–9)

The Roman Catholic Church makes a sharp distinction between the homily and the eulogy (or tribute). The homily is to centre on the paschal mystery being at work in the deceased and bringing comfort to the living. A lay-led funeral with ‘instruction’ based on the readings is anticipated by this direction.

It is therefore essential that the sermon explains the Christian message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thomas Long gives eight different styles of funeral sermon. While all try to relate the Scriptures to the funeral for the benefit of the family and the congregation, the approach to this task differs.

  • Kerygmatic: ‘In the valley of the shadow of death, you are there.’ The purpose here is to preach the gospel. This makes funeral preaching a part of the normal work of gospel proclamation.
  • Ecclesial: ‘Such is the company of those who seek God.’ In death we are not alone, either the living or the departed.
  • Oblational: ‘Bring an offering and come into his courts.’ In death we return the deceased to God with all their life.
  • Eucharistic: ‘O give thanks to the Lord.’ We thank God for the life of the departed and for all their life.
  • Therapeutic: ‘In the day of my trouble, I seek the Lord.’ The purpose here is to minister God’s healing love.
  • Commemorative: ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.’ This is the eulogistic element commemorating a life of grace.
  • Missional: ‘That I may walk before God in the light of life.’ Life is a mission of God even in the face of death.
  • Educational: ‘Teach us to number our days.’ This is a message for the believing and unbelieving but needs to be done with some sensitivity.

There are elements in this list that might appear overlapping. However, this is a useful typology to use for reflection on the aim of the funeral sermon. What are we trying to do when we preach? Do you feel you want to use one style, and if so, why?

We offer here a series of questions that might be a helpful checklist for you when preaching at a funeral.

What is the purpose of this funeral?

  • Is it to mourn the loss?
  • To remember and celebrate someone?
  • To anticipate the resurrection?
  • To comfort those who mourn?
  • To help people move on?
  • To preach the gospel?

What is my theology of life and death?

  • How are hope and faith related to death and resurrection?
  • Am I able to live with the ‘not knowing’ of death?

Who is this person who died?

  • Old or young? Married? Parents, siblings, children?
  • What was their social status? Work? Faith? Successes and failures?
  • What key word or image do you associate with this person?
  • What were the beliefs of the deceased?

Who are the people who will hear this funeral sermon?

  • Family? Friends? Colleagues?
  • How many will there be?
  • How did the family relate to the deceased?
  • Was the death expected?
  • Who is being left out?
  • What is not being talked about?
  • What is the faith of the family?

What is my relationship to the deceased?

  • To the mourning community?
  • Am I personally grieving?
  • Does this remind me of other losses?
  • What will my future relationship be with these people?

green-funerals-green-resting-placeThis is a fairly formidable list. It centres on the pastoral circumstances of the participants and their interconnectedness. It is perhaps most appropriate as another checklist of things to be aware of in visiting the family. Some of it might be helpful in adding eulogic elements into the sermon, although the preacher has to be careful that all the statements made are accurate. While it does not provide the gospel words involved in preaching, it does provide the pastoral context for your sermon.

I think this booklet will become a really important resource for Readers involved in this ministry—and might be useful for those in ordained ministry too. There are also two other Grove booklets on preaching at funerals: the original Preaching at Funerals by Ian Bunting (now out of print); and the more recent Sorrow and Hope: preaching at funerals by Nick Watson.

To buy this booklet, visit its page at Grove.

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4 thoughts on “What to preach at a funeral?”

  1. What do you preach when you have to take a service where the person who died showed no interest in God, had no evidence of any kind of faith and was ambivalent to the Gospel at best?

    • Not the following which I heard at one funeral:
      Five times “If you don’t believe in Jesus then you are going to hell – and I’m not responsible because I’ve told you”. With a clear statement that “if X didn’t believe that’s where X has gone”

      • Er, no, not that! Interestingly, I don’t think that would constitute ‘preaching the gospel’ under any reasonably criterion, and it is odd that people think it might.

        Jesus’ pattern was to announce that God had done something, that there was an opportunity, that this was good news, and he demonstrated the difference it made. Then he invited people to respond. Seems like a much better pattern to me…

    • Chris, I suppose that the classic Anglican response would be: it is not in the first instance about the faith of the person, but the faith(fulness) of God. There is quite a debate about the phrase ‘pistis Christou’ in the NT, whether it is ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’, that is, whether this phrase means the faith we have in Christ or the faith(fulness) of Christ. This is rather important when we talk about ‘being saved by faith.’

      As the booklet explores, the most important thing is that we talk about what God has done; it is for the tribute (if there is one) to talk about what the person has done. Pastorally, there is a strong sense that the funeral is for those who are left, rather than ‘for’ the one who has gone…


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