I was attending my first funeral as the lead pastor of a church, and I was underdressed. Here, in rural southwest Alabama, where people wear jeans to weddings and polo shirts to church, I discovered that pastors wear suits to funerals. So does every other man who owns one.
Good thing I wasn’t officiating.
Since then, I’ve lost count of all the funerals I’ve performed, but I know that I’ve always worn a suit – a dark suit, with a white shirt and conservative tie. I do it because I always want to be prepared to honor the deceased appropriately and serve the surviving loved ones well.
If only the deceased would always show such care and concern.
I’ve been to some depressing funerals, and I’ve been to some where the joy overwhelmed the sorrow. And while there’s no such thing as an easy funeral, some are definitely easier than others. Without being macabre, some are almost fun. These are invariably the times when the deceased made the best preparations for their own funerals while they had the chance.
You know, while they were living.
Let’s get something out in the open. Every one of you is alive right now, and unless the Lord Jesus returns in your lifetime, every one of you will die. When you die, someone is going to try to remember you, maybe even honor you. There will be a funeral or memorial or committal of some kind, and it will be yours. What do you want it to be like? How do you want to be remembered? What do you want the minister (or anyone else) to say? How do you want to leave those closest to you?
Now is the time to decide. It’s too late once you’re dead. I know you’d rather not think about these things right now, but when you pass on, we’ll have about 48 hours to plan your funeral. Those hours will be filled with shock, grief, sadness, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and not everyone will make good decisions. I’ve sat with enough families in the funeral director’s office to know that there’s a lot you can do to help. So, let me sketch out a few ideas that you might want to consider.
It’s your funeral. It can be anything you want it to be. If I’m there, I’ll try to honor you and exalt Christ. But here are some things that you can, and should, plan for:
1. The Cost of the Funeral
This shocks a lot of people. Good funeral directors try to soften the blow, but they’re in business too. When all the necessary services are added up, the bill leaves some people dumbfounded. They simply never imagined a funeral could cost so much.
How much? In our part of the country, $5000 is very low, and a lot of funeral homes require payment up front. (I think you can figure out why.) There are a few cost-cutting measures, such as immediate burial, but – ignoring the ethical issues for a moment – even the most economic cremation can cost several thousand dollars.
Funerals involve more than you’d think, even with the most basic services. Someone has to collect the body and prepare it according to local laws. Then there’s the cost of a burial plot, a casket, and a headstone. Some states require a vault, which is an underground concrete enclosure that keeps the ground from collapsing around the casket. Add the use of the funeral home, digging the grave, transporting the body to the cemetery, flowers, stationery, obituaries in local papers, and multiple copies of the death certificate, and you have a considerable sum.
Unfortunately, you can’t do much to reduce this amount, but you can save some money in advance so that your loved ones don’t have to scramble to come up with the cash. You should probably invest the money on your own, though some people prefer burial policies. If you do, be careful to double-check the terms of your policy. I’ve seen families shocked to learn that the burial policy only covered a casket and a hole in the ground, nothing more. Make sure you know what’s covered and what’s not.
Paying for your own funeral is one of the best things you can do for those you leave behind.
2. The Wellbeing of Your Family
What happens after the funeral? Your family tries to create a new life, a new “normal” without you. This means closing bank accounts, transferring titles, disposing of your personal property, and executing your will. Assuming you have one.
While you have breath, write your will and get it notarized. If you care at all for your family and friends, tell them what to do with all your stuff. Some people become monsters when grief and greed combine, so if you own anything valuable, decide now what to do with it. You could have an estate sale with the proceeds divided equally. Or better yet, ask people now if there’s anything they particularly want. You don’t have to abide by anyone’s suggestions, but you can prevent some hurtful arguments and even legal wrangling.
Of course, a will won’t help much if you leave your family behind with little support. The Bible reserves some of its strongest condemnation for those who don’t provide for their families, even after death. (1 Timothy 5:8) The answer? Good financial decisions in life and a good life insurance policy for afterwards. I won’t go into all of the specifics, but term life insurance is relatively inexpensive, and many finance experts recommend a policy worth ten times your annual income.
If you can’t afford one that large, consider one big enough to cover the cost of the funeral and to provide some assistance to your loved ones in the tumultuous days immediately following. (Parents should consider smaller funeral-size policies on children living at home.)
3. The Testimony of Your Faith
If paying for your funeral is one of the best things you can do, preaching it is even better. I don’t mean actually writing the minister’s message, though he might appreciate it! I mean that you should leave people with no doubt about what you believe.
At funerals, everyone wants the deceased to be in heaven, especially the non-religious. Sometimes the most religious statements (and the worst theology) comes from those who are the least active in church, who know the least about religion. Unfortunately this can include the preacher. I’ve heard preachers betray their own creed by asserting that the deceased was walking on golden streets when everything we knew about them suggested the contrary.
Let’s face it. When you die, we won’t know where you went. We can’t know because we don’t know your heart like God does. We can suspect, even have a pretty good idea of where you are, but we won’t know. There are such things as hypocrites. And there are deathbed conversions.
We do know what God has said about where people go and why they go there, and if you’ll tell us what you believe, we’ll know that too. From there, it’s a very short step to compare the two statements and see if they agree. (We’re hoping your life agreed with what you said you believed, too, but at funerals, people usually keep a polite silence even if it didn’t.)
I guess the question is whether your faith agrees with the Gospel of Christ. Do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin and rose again so that you might have eternal life, and have you received his gift of salvation by repenting of your sin and trusting Jesus to be your Lord and Savior by grace through faith plus nothing else?
There is a man in our church who believes that. He is still alive, but I have a letter he’s written me that details his faith. If I officiate his funeral, I intend to read it. He has left us all a great gift by sharing his faith one last time.
Please don’t leave us wondering, and don’t leave the preacher in the awkward place of having to ignore the obvious implications of a life lived without Christ.
4. The Funeral Itself
Some funerals go longer than an hour, and some have little more than a prayer and a slideshow. But every one of the funerals I’ve conducted had a plan, an order, a list of specific elements that had to be included. Have you considered what you want in yours?
In my experience, the most common funeral consists of a welcome, reading of the clergy record (birth date, death date, surviving relatives), Scripture reading, prayer, song, message (eulogy, sermon, etc.), and concluding prayer. Usually in that order. Later, once everyone has gathered at the gravesite there may be more Scripture, some brief remarks, and another prayer.
Of course, your funeral can be as simple or elaborate as you want, but even the simplest funeral raises some questions:
Who will officiate?
Ideally, you want someone close enough to you and your family to lead the service effectively, yet not so close that they might be overwhelmed by emotion. Don’t ask your immediate family members to do this – you will be robbing them of an important part of dealing with their own grief.
But don’t leave it to chance either. Think of someone you can trust to handle the service – someone who will speak the truth about you, use the Scriptures well, and minister to the grieving. Go ahead and ask them now if they’ll perform your funeral when the time comes (assuming they’re able). Then make sure you write it down and let someone else know.
Who else will speak?
In most of the funerals I’ve performed, I’ve been the only one speaking. The other extreme is having an open mic, where anyone can say something. I recommend against this; most people make poor impromptu speeches and usually just make everyone feel awkward. However, a friend of the family can bring warmth and comfort by sharing familiar memories. Plan this, and ask ahead.
What music do you want?
Are there any hymns or familiar songs that mean a lot to you? Anything that might express your faith or values? Do you want someone to sing a solo or lead the congregation in singing? Do you prefer instrumental music (piano, guitar, etc.)? Even if you’re not a musical person, you should realize the power of music to comfort and soothe, and you can probably think of something to share with your loved ones. (The most common song is “Amazing Grace” for reasons I won’t go into right now. If that’s your favorite, great. But can you think of anything else?)
What will be read?
This is mainly a question of which Bible verses to read. Like “Amazing Grace,” the 23rd Psalm gets a lot of mileage, often for the same unmentioned reasons. Again, if you love Psalm 23, that’s great. But is there anything else in Scripture that stirs your soul, exhilarates your spirit, and confirms your hope in Christ? There are plenty of other Psalms that are just as good, or you might consider verses in John 14 or 1 Corinthians 15 or 1 Thessalonians 4 or Revelation 21.
Those passages are often read at funerals because of their focus on life after death for believers, and if you don’t specify otherwise, they’ll probably be read at yours. But think beyond that; what Scriptures mean the most to you because of how they fix your eyes upon Christ and what he’s done for you?
Just let me offer one caution. Sometimes at funerals people allow sentiment to supplant solid truth. There has been a lot of bad poetry and bad theology – both written and sung – used at funerals because somebody was moved by it. Usually, they were moved by it after you died, when they weren’t thinking clearly. Think this through now – emotions are good, but they can cloud our judgment. What truth will you offer your grieving loved ones at your funeral?
Remember, it’s your funeral. You can distribute Bibles to guests, hold a memorial service on the river, or have an illusionist make your casket disappear. Whatever you want! You can even video or record yourself and speak to your friends and family yourself. Just plan ahead.
5. The Celebration of Your Life
The happiest funerals I’ve ever attended were those where the deceased loved Jesus and everyone knew it because of how he / she loved everybody else. Those are the funerals where an open mic would tell countless stories of blessing and give unceasing glory to God. Funerals for people who have lived full lives of faith are veritable celebrations.
On the other hand, the saddest funerals – apart from the tragic deaths of the young – are those where the deceased did very little for anyone and left little to be remembered. These are the ones where adult children try to remember something from long ago just to raise a smile. (This is a great reason to be active in a church.)
Make happy memories for those around you, and your funeral will take care of itself. I’ve planned funerals that I was afraid would be too short for a life of so many years, and I’ve planned funerals when we had to cut things out because there was so much to be honored. I’d much rather do the latter.
Love Jesus, live like it, and let your loved ones envy your home-going rather than lament your passing away.
(Lest anyone think otherwise, this post is not a reaction to any funeral in particular. It is simply a list of things I’ve learned from taking part in a lot of funerals. However, this post was most recently prompted by a funeral I performed for a family in our church, who had virtually every detail planned and prepared with their loved one before she died. The experience was peaceful and Christ-centered, and I could only wish that more funerals were similar. I realize, of course, that this cannot always be the case.)