Being asked to preach a funeral sermon is daunting. And learning how to preach a funeral sermon can be hard. But if you muster the courage to go through with the sermon, and if you put together a message that glorifies God and honors the family, preaching at a funeral will prove to be tremendously rewarding. Indeed, it’s one of my favorite parts of ministry.
I’ve preached at five funerals in less than three years. I preached my first funeral service within the first month of starting out in full-time pastoral ministry, without really knowing what I was doing. In order to develop as a pastor who ministers well at funerals, I’ve read good resources, asked other pastors for help, learned from trial and error, and tweaked my mistakes. Today, I’d like to think I have a decent idea of how to preach a funeral sermon, although I can always be growing.
In this post, I’m going to show you what I’ve learned over the years ministering at funerals. Stated differently, I’m going to give you a step-by-step guide on how to preach a funeral sermon, along with some other information that I hope is useful.
How to Preach a Funeral Sermon: A Step-by-Step Guide
Let’s get started.
Using the Right Resources
Knowledge is empowering. This is especially true when writing a funeral sermon. I didn’t just wing it when it came time to preach. Instead, I sought information from trusted sources.
Here’s what I used:
- The section on writing a funeral sermon in Lee Eclov’s chapter in his helpful book Pastor’s Service Manual.
- The section on writing a funeral sermon in The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry by R. Kent Hughs and Douglas Sean O’Donnell.
- The section on writing a funeral sermon in the appendix from Bryan Chapell’s book Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon.
- By speaking with trusted pastors.
Much of what you see below is me building and borrowing from the resources cited above.
Here’s what you should know when ministering at funerals.
1. Take this Seriously.
This is not the time to joke around, be sarcastic, or arrive unprepared. Take this seriously. It’s likely that what you do and say will be etched in the family’s life for a long time. As the pastor (or preacher), this is a prime opportunity to display the gentleness and love of God. Please note that tonality, word choice, and body language matter. Be responsive. Show up on time. Take this seriously.
At the same time, don’t put an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself. You are God’s person for the job and God can work in and through you. Allow your nervousness to propel you to draw near to God, and trust God with the results of your funeral sermon.
2. Meet with the Family to Provide Comfort and Aquire Information.
You’ll want to meet with the family to gather information — both about the deceased and general information about the funeral. You also want to meet with the family to practice the ministry of presence. Simply being next to the family and showing sympathy and listening well can be a means of encouragement. This is a crucial moment in which you can help pastor the family well.
Before I give you a series of potential questions to ask, let me give you advice that (I think) I heard from John Piper: Don’t ask the family if the person who died was a believer. Why? What if the answer is “no?” Now you’ve got the family thinking about the family member in eternal destruction. Often, the family will let you know about the person’s faith as you talk to them. Don’t be interrogative. Be patient and try to intuitively pick up on the relevant information required, including whether or not the person was a believer.
Potential Questions to Ask the Family
None of the following questions are original to me. As you meet with the family, here are some questions you can ask:
1. What did you appreciate most about him or her?
2. What are some of your favorite memories of him or her?
3. What will you most remember?
4. Will there be comments from the family who would want to speak?
5. Do you want me to send you a copy of the Order of Service?
6. Are there any Scriptures or songs you want to include?
8. Do I need to get in touch with the funeral director?
9. Anything I need to know for committal service?
10. Anything else you want me to know?
Everyone’s family is different. Often, people are sad and crying, and this is the time to practice the ministry of presence, to simply be quiet and present. Sometimes people are in denial and are jovial. Other times, the family isn’t grieving for a number of reasons. Tact and social skills will serve you well as you gather the necessary information.
Ask relevant questions, but don’t come across as intrusive.
3. Nuts and Bolts: Things to Know About Your Sermon and the Funeral Process.
Here are some things to know:
A funeral service is a short service. Usually, it’s 30 minutes long. Sometimes it may be up to an hour. Rarely is it longer than an hour. So obviously, then, your sermon needs to be shorter than a traditional Sunday sermon.
Keep your sermon short. Your sermon should be around 10-20 minutes long.
Know the difference between an obituary and a eulogy. You might be wondering, “What is the sermon called at a funeral?” It’s called the same thing as a traditional corporate worship service— a sermon. However, the funeral sermon should not be confused with the obituary or eulogy. An obituary is a straightforward summary of the person’s life; a eulogy is a tribute to the person. An obituary and eulogy are not required at funerals, but sometimes families want to give them. Oblige, but also provide the family a time count. Letting the family know how much time they have will prevent them from taking too much time during the funeral.
Pro tip: Always have the last word at a funeral. If a family member speaks, you will always want to have the last word, in case you need to correct any heretical or unhelpful teachings uttered by the family member. If corrections are required, do it respectfully.
Only speak the facts. Eclov (from the resource mentioned above) nails it: “Speak only what you know is fact. Otherwise, the family may know other sides to the individual being lauded and think you a liar or naive” (153).
I once remember being at a funeral where the pastor kept talking about how so and so was in heaven and enjoying his mansion, and the people in front of me, presumably family members, were looking at each other as if the pastor was delusional.
Let us repeat Eclov’s advice: speak the facts. If you are unsure of the person’s salvation, then in your funeral sermon, you can speak about the promise of heaven without connecting it specifically to the person’s life.
Your sermon is a brief meditation on Scripture, not a deep exegetical lecture. This is not the time for a 45-minute exegetical sermon. This is the time for a meditation on Scripture, usually around 20 minutes long.
Consider Bible verses that speak to hope in Christ. Here are some to consider: Psalm 23, Psalm 61:1-5, Lamentations 3:19-26, 31-33, John 11:25-26 (my personal favorite), John 14:1-6 2 Corinthians 5:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Revelation 1:17-18, Revelation 21:1-4.
You don’t have to have music at the funeral. Music can be too emotional for some family members.
Dress formally. Usually black (or dark) suit and tie.
You want to bring comfort to the family and speak on the hope we have in Jesus. This is the time to shine the hope we have in Jesus, irrespective of the person’s life. Let your message be honest, but also be hopeful. Bring comfort and hope.
Look for illustrations from the person’s life that points to the gospel. I got this advice from my seminary preaching professor. This is such good advice. As you listen to the family speak about the deceased, look for illustrations that point to the gospel.
4. Writing the Sermon
I’ve already given you some thoughts on writing the sermon. I want to remind you to keep it short, keep it simple, and remember you are giving a brief meditation on Scripture, with the aim of honoring God and comforting the hurting.
Here is a rough outline for your sermon funeral that you may use:
- Read the Sermon Text
- Main Point 1
- Main Point 2
You may also add more explanation, another illustration, and some more application if you think it’s necessary. The point is to explain, illustrate, and apply the passage. Whether you have one point or three points will be determined by the Scriptural text you choose to preach on.
5. Example Order of Service for a Funeral
One of your jobs is to put together the funeral Order of Service. You’ll want to work with the family on this. But here’s an example:
- Scripture Reading
- Comments from Family (if any)
- Sermon Scripture Text
6. The Commital Service
This happens after the funeral. It’s where you commit the body to the ground. The language is unhelpful because we know that a person enters into eternity — whether heaven or eternal condemnation — immediately after death.
Go to the committal service. Sometimes this is open to everyone invited to the funeral; other times it’s only for the family. The funeral director will ask you if you want to ride with him or her. I always say “yes” and enjoy those moments in the car, in hopes of sharing the gospel.
The committal service is, once again, short. Usually around 20 minutes long. The body is in the casket, people gather around the body one last time, and you offer words of hope.
Looking at my notes, here’s a rough outline of one of my committal service notes. I’ve slightly tweaked it for you.
- We gather here today to commit the body of [enter name].
- We find comfort in the Apostle Paul’s words who said [enter Bible verses].
- While [enter name here] body will lay here, the Bible teaches that [enter doctrine you think is necessary].
- Enter gospel hope [e.g., although sin separates us from God, through faith in Jesus Christ, we can have a right relationship with God, and have hope after death]
- More brief words of hope.
- More Bible verses.
7. Final Advice
Some more advice. Make sure you spend time in prayer, preparing yourself to service in this capacity. Also try to be present at as many events surrounding the funeral (.e.g, memorial, luncheon, etc.) to show the family love and respect. Sometimes you won’t be able to make it to every event, and that’s fine. But try to attend if you can.
Other How-to Preaching Posts
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. From time to time I like to post how-to preaching posts to help those who are looking for quick help in this area. Here are others that may interest you: