ChuckWarnock.com

Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

How I prepare for a memorial service


A memorial service  should accomplish two things — it should bring comfort to the family, and it should connect with the life of the deceased.  To meet those two criteria, I ask the family to help me by providing these 6 things:

  1. Scripture passages.  I ask if they have scripture passages that hold special meaning for them.  I do not promise I will use all the passages, but they usually give me a place to start in message preparation.
  2. The Bible that belonged to their loved one.  I have asked if the family would like for me to read from their loved one’s Bible. Some do not have a Bible they have used frequently, and I move on. 
  3. Stories. I am looking for stories that characterize their loved one’s life.  These can be funny, serious, spiritual, or everyday stories but they need to capture some aspect of the person’s life.  I always ask if I can share that at the service.  Sometimes people tell you stories as a part of their griefwork, but they do not want them told publicly.
  4. Hymns or songs.  In our community we get requests mostly for  traditional hymns like In The Garden or Amazing Grace.   Some families may select recorded songs that may or may not be apppropriate, but you can guide the family to use music that honors both God and the individual’s memory.  I conducted a teenager’s  funeral years ago, and the family played heavy metal music prior to the service.  I thought someone at the funeral home had a radio on.  I complained to the manager, who informed me that this was the family’s request.  I would have tried to steer them to a more appropriate means of honoring their son. 
  5. Poems, prayers, or readings.  Some families want a special poem, prayer, or reading used during the service.  I try to accomodate those requests as often as I can.
  6. Eulogies.  Often families want to give an opportunity for others at the service to share their memories with the congregation.  I suggest that one or two of these be planned so there is not a long period of silence while waiting.  

If you’re a pastor, you probably have a similar list of helps that you’re looking for when you prepare for a funeral or memorial service.  What questions do you ask?  How do you connect the service with the life of the person being remembered?

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Categories: Pastoral Care, Worship

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2 replies

  1. Good list, Chuck. #2 is a great idea that I had not thought of before.

    A couple of thoughts from my perspective:
    Music: while normally I am very attentive to using only hymnody that is sound in its theological content (someone wisely said, “a congregation will sing themselves into heresy long before it comes from the pulpit”), I pretty much abandon any strict principles here. “In the Garden” and “Church of the Wildwood” are two “hymns” that have no usefulness whatsoever theologically, but they are a comfort to the family because the deceased loved them. At a funeral I attended last spring, they played, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”– which I think was just fine. I wouldn’t have had a problem with heavy metal, if the family felt that would be a good memorial of their son.

    Hope of the Gospel: It is a non-negotiable to me that the hope of the Gospel is clearly declared at a funeral. Not because I want to take advantage of the wayward souls who might happen into the service and scare them into a “decision for Christ” but because there is no greater hope or comfort I can offer the family than this. Whether I am confident that the deceased was a believer (in which case the comfort is HIS eternal destiny), don’t believe that he was (in which case the comfort is in securing THEIR eternal destiny) or I’m uncertain (in which case the comfort is in the confidence of assurance), this is vital.

    Dispelling magical thinking and wrong beliefs: I find that more superstition and weird, abberant beliefs show up at funerals than anywhere else. I once had a mom tell her children to “tell granddaddy goodbye before they close the coffin, because his soul won’t hear you after that.” It wouldn’t have surprised me if the heavy metal-playing parents had said something to the effect of, “this will comfort him as he passes through to the other side.” There are many opportunities to tactfully challenge these in the moment; if no TACTFUL opportunity arises then, I refrain. But I will try to incorporate such things into my teaching more generally, so that people know the truth.

    Sorry for rambling…

  2. A similar thought to reading from their Bible – when they are a professing believer and I am comfortable doing so, I ask if I may borrow their Bible prior to the service. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person from their Bible. Sometimes there is little to use, but often there is a wealth of material – underlined verses, poems, pictures, readings etc. – that is useful in comforting the family AND emphasizing the Gospel.

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