I never know what to call this part of a service. It used to be the funeral sermon. That feels big and preachy. You could call it the homily, the meditation, the devotional. For this conversation, we’ll call it the message.
I confess. I always worry about getting the message right. I worry about finding the right balance of encouragement and comfort and truth and remembrance. I want to make sure that I’m providing comfort to these people who have just lost someone close. I want a mix of laughter and tears to bring relief and not offend anyone.
It’s a message from you to the people in the room, offering a connection between the life of the person who has died, the life we are living, and God. This isn’t the eulogy, though when we know the person ourselves, we can talk about that experience. In the message we are answering this question: How does God invite us into thinking about how we are living our lives going forward?
I’ll confess something else. I always end up writing out my message. You don’t have to do that. But I know that my emotions can overwhelm my thinking. I know that I can find my clearest words when I’m not standing in front of people. Because I believe words matter, I write them down. I practice reading them before the service. I read them in the service.
Building the message
As I said, the question we answer is “How does God invite us into thinking about how we are living our lives going forward.” But that’s not how I start building the message. I start with this question: “What words from God will be helpful to these people facing this situation?” And that gives me a simple list for building a message:
- Think about the situation.
- Think about who will be in the room and their needs.
- Ask God who needs to hear what.
- Listen for the best story from the Bible.
- Write the message.
What has happened to bring us here (to this situation)?
The message is a response to a situation. Something has happened, a death in a particular way, which invites our spoken response. So start by thinking about the situation. What is the disorder that happened because this person died? What is there about the death that is making it hard?
Take some time to reflect on it, because the people in the room are thinking about the situation and how it must be affecting the people in the front row. And the people in the front row are experiencing the disorder in their lives.
To illustrate, think about how each of these situations provides different opportunities for us to respond:
- The third death in this extended family in a month.
- The death of the last member of a generation of the family.
- The death of the only child of a couple who cannot have more children.
- The death of a young mother shortly after the birth of her third child.
- The death of a five-week-old.
- The death of an 85-year-old mother who was gracious to the end.
- The death of a person estranged from family who wanted nothing to do with him at the end of his life.
- The death of a person after six years of cancer.
- The death of a person following years of Alzheimer’s which has stripped away friends.
- The death of a person from cardiac arrest in the emergency room.
As you read through that list, you realize that there will be different words of encouragement and understanding in each situation. Some families have prepared themselves, others are still in shock. Some families are exhausted, others are relieved. In some situations you are needed to respond to deep tragic anger, in others to lost opportunities, in others to a life lived well.
So spend a few minutes and make some notes about the things that you know about this death that will affect how people will be thinking and feeling at the service.
Who is in the room?
The message is addressed to people sitting in a room. So after considering the situation, I think through who will be at the service, as far as I know. The best way to approach this may be to think in terms of concentric circles. At the middle are the people who are closest to the person who has died. In the next circle are the people with family relationships. In the next circle are the friends of the person who died. In the outer circle are people with no direct connection to the person who died but are there to support the family or friends.
The challenge is to be supportive to people who are closest to the center, to invite people further out to support those who are closer in, and to provide clarity and challenge for everyone.
One way to start is to consider the questions that people may be asking themselves, each other, you, and God. We don’t have to answer each question, because we don’t know the answers to many of them. But keeping in mind that a daughter is thinking ahead five years to her wedding, for example, may give you insights into how to talk about her loss. Add to this list as they bring other questions to mind.
- Why me, why us, why her, why now?
- How could God have done this?
- What could I have done differently?
- How can I go on?
- How can we pay the bills?
- How will my mom survive?
- When will I feel better?
- When will I understand?
- When will my kids feel safe?
- Who will take care of us?
- Who will walk me down the aisle?
How do you take this awareness of audience into mind as you are preparing your message?
- Because there are people who know the inside stories, the family jokes, I’m willing to tell them. But I always do my best to explain the story to people who don’t know them.
- When I know that there is family conflict, I keep that in mind as I shape the message, not so much to avoid the conflict as to offer steps to resolve conflict.
- When I know that there were unresolved conflicts with the person who died, I’ll look for ways to help healing without ignoring the pain.
- If the person was abusive to parts of the family, I won’t talk about how wonderful he or she was.
- If the person had two families and treated them differently, I won’t talk about how wonderful he or she was.
That’s why I start with thinking about who will be present. It gives me structure for choosing what to say.
Talking to God
I spend some time asking God what message He wants the family to hear. This isn’t exactly praying for a sermon, though sometimes we do that. It’s more asking for discernment, asking to know about the wounds that need healing, the fears that need comfort, the uncertainty that needs clarity, the despair that needs hope. Sitting alone and looking (in your imagination) at the family as you talk with God can help you see things that you never realized before.
In these moments of conversation with God, we often get a new picture of who God is. Some of us, while talking with God before the service of a child, have realized that God understands what it’s like to lose a child. Others have noticed that when Jesus talked with Martha and Mary about the death of their brother, he was where we are when we talk with families–in a space before resurrection. One friend was praying about his dad’s death and was wondering why God had taken his dad. He heard, “God didn’t take him, cancer took him. And God received him.”
In these holy moments of conversation, of what feels like desperation, we often receive clarity.
Picking a text
When I speak at a service, I always refer to a text from the Bible. I get those texts from several sources of inspiration: from the person or family, from what I know of the person, from what we need in the moment.
A person’s life verse
It can be a text from the life of the person, particularly if they were a God-believing person. As you talk to family members, they often say things like, “they really liked the 23rd Psalm.” “They often found comfort in Romans (or Proverbs 3:5-6 or John 3:16)”
If a particular passage resonated with them, offered them courage or comfort or hope, then writing a message that unpacks their life in the context of that text makes sense.
What were the obstacles in their life that the words of Scripture carried them through? What were the turning points, what were the moments of greatest impact that reflect the verses?
That list of obstacles and the words of encouragement can allow the person to speak to all of us.
Often, by the way, these biggest moments are not the biggest business decisions. They are more likely to be the moments of death or illness. They are more likely to be the times that the person went fishing with grandkids rather than taking the business call, because they had learned early in their life that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me”.
A text the person demonstrated
As you listen to the family talk and as you listen to God talk about the family, you may be reminded of a passage of Scripture. You may think about being still and knowing that God is God. You may think about the person’s love of nature and be reminded of David’s descriptions of creation. You may think about the way that the person cared about underdogs.
A text that provides comfort in uncertainty
Some deaths are inexplicably hard.
- When they are at the beginning of turning points in life (a new relationship, a new baby, a new retirement)
- When the person was an infant or child.
- When the person never breathed.
- When they are an act of violence or trauma.
- When a person takes their own life.
In these moments, we may fail God and the family by providing reasons and blame too quickly. Sometimes these are platitudes that are simply not true: “God always takes the best and leaves the rest” takes away hope for the rest of us. “God needed another angel” is theologically inaccurate. Sometimes we offer reasons or explanations or lessons. At these moments, reasons offer little comfort. I may know that the person doesn’t have to suffer any more, but I still miss them.
So look for passages that talk about Jesus’ tears and compassion, that talk about Jesus’ presence with us always, that talk about uncertainty in this life.
For example, the story about Jesus and Mary and Martha talking during the time between Lazarus’ death and resurrection is an opportunity to explore what it looks like to talk to God when we aren’t sure why someone died. Both Mary and Martha are clear – Jesus could have prevented this death. And Jesus is clear, he weeps and is angry about death.
In another example, right before he disappears, Jesus talks about being with his disciples always. This story can help us explore what it means that Jesus is with us.
And then you start writing.
And you have to do the writing. I could give you THE outline, THE words. But then you wouldn’t be telling the story for this person and this group in this place on this day. So you have to do the writing and the speaking, based on what we’ve thought about so far. But I do have several observations that might be helpful:
- You don’t have to start with a joke.
- You can talk about what the person thought about funerals.
- You don’t have to apologize about your own discomfort or lack of experience.
- You can talk about why it’s important to spend a few moments together reflecting on life and death, on this person’s life and death and our own lives.
- You don’t have to have three points.
- You can have a beginning and middle and end.
- You don’t have to ask people to follow Jesus.
- You can invite people to follow Jesus like this person did.
- You don’t have to talk for thirty minutes.
- You don’t have to talk for twenty minutes.
- You can talk for about fifteen minutes and most people will be still paying attention.
Where do we go from here? (How to end the message)
As you get to the last third of the message, talk about the ways that we can live differently because of this person’s life.
What can we start doing that this person has stopped doing?
In one funeral, I talked about how the person had always asked how our son was doing and had said that he was praying for him. I said, “That job’s open now.”
I later learned that a family member had picked up that role, praying for our son.
What can we start doing that will remind us of what was important to that person?
My aunt loved to be part of the soup kitchen at a church. Once a year, her kids gather from around the country and serve together. In the message, you can affirm the good and compassionate priorities and suggest a simple way to continue them.
What can we start doing because we are free from the reminders of that person?
If the person who died was a strong personality that constrained the lives of everyone, it may be acceptable to name that in the message. Not as an attack on that person, but as a blessing for the rest. “You have been focusing your lives to serve and love her interests. But you now have permission to think about what you love to do, what you want to learn, where you want to go.”
Who can we start being now that the person is gone?
This is particularly important to talk about when the service is for the last member of a generation. I’ve done funerals for both parents of families. When the dad dies, the focus of comfort in the service is the mom. But when the mom dies, the kids are now the adults. It doesn’t matter if the mom was in her eighties and the kids in their sixties, there is still a transition to being the oldest generation that carries weight. It’s a new reality that can be discussed in the message.
Ending the message
Write a last paragraph that reaffirms that this is a challenging time, that there will be waves of grief and questions, and that God is aware. And then pray.
Thank you for the life of our friend.
I ask that you will bring healing to our hearts as we remember.
We know that we have the hope of the resurrection, but there is a gap between what we know and what we feel. So God of comfort, we ask for you to remind us of your presence and power at those times when we most need you.
Thank you for your presence.
- In 1968, Lloyd Bitzer wrote "The Rhetorical Situation", an essay where he described situations where communication happens, he defined the rhetorical situation as, "A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence." I think that a death may be one of these situations. We can't remove the death, of course, but our words can remove confusion. Lloyd Bitzer, "The Rhetorical Situation," Philosophy & Rhetoric 1:1 (January 1968): 3. ↵
- John 11. ↵
- Matthew 19:14. ↵
- Psalm 8, for example. ↵
- The story is in John 11. ↵
- Matthew 28:16-28. ↵