Getting Tough at the Funeral

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“And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men” (I Thessalonians 5:14).

At the funeral, as at every other place where you rise to serve the Lord, preacher, tell the truth.

The gospel truth.

You have an obligation to comfort the bereaved, true. But you have an even greater duty to obey your Lord by declaring the whole counsel of God.

The Holy Spirit can guide you on how to do both; the flesh doesn’t have a clue and will lean to one extreme or the other.

My pastor friend R. J. did something rather bold the other day.

At the funeral of a young man who died of an overdose, he called out some in the audience who enabled him in his addiction.

Not that he called names. That would have been unnecessarily hurtful and counterproductive.

He said, “If some of you in this room had a part in bringing this young man to this point, I want to tell you, we don’t hate you. We hate the devil and we hate what he has done.”

Later, I asked him about that. I said, “Looking around, I didn’t see anyone other than your son who looked like a druggie.” We both laughed. His son is one of the finest people we know, although he does wear his hair in a ponytail that reaches to his belt and keeps his facial hair looking scruffy.

He said, “Several of the pallbearers were buddies who bought him weed and beer.” Started him on the road that led to using heroin and a premature death.

Granted, R. J. wasn’t brutally confrontive to these guys, but perhaps they got the message. Most pastors would not have attempted even that much.

The more funerals I hold, the more I find myself wanting to toughen up my approach.

Like many preachers, I have silenced my uncertainties concerning the spiritual status of the deceased–what does it matter now?–and tried to comfort the mourners with words that were softer than may have been necessary.

Sometimes people need it straight.

Here are several ways in which some of us pastors may want to “get tough” in our funeralizing…

1) Let’s quit beatifying the deceased.

(Note to Ginger: I didn’t say “beautifying,” but “beatifying.” Look it up. The mortician beautifies; a lazy preacher will beatify.)

If the truth about the deceased’s life is unattractive, it’s all right to say little or nothing. While we cannot prevent others from exaggerating or applying cosmetics to what was clearly an unfaithful life, but we do not have to be a party to it.

2) Let’s quit sending people of questionable religious convictions to heaven.

Okay, you and I don’t send people anywhere. But you understand the expression.

God is the Judge and we are not. Just because the sobbing family wants to console themselves with thoughts of the deceased going to heaven–they almost always do–you don’t have to affirm it. Comfort them as you’re able, then preach the word.

3) Let’s not hesitate to tell people there is a heaven and there is a hell, how to reach the first and to avoid the second. We can do this without being mean-spirited or overly dramatic.

I’ve told on these pages of a pastor who told the mourners that the deceased was a scoundrel and a liar, also a cheat, drunkard, and adulterer. Then he added, “And last Thursday, when he died, he went straight to hell.” Well, the good news of the gospel is not that someone went to hell, but that because of what Jesus did on Calvary, no one need ever have to go to hell again.

If you cannot tell the good news of the gospel, please don’t bother mentioning hell.

4) Let’s quit letting people believe that being a “good person” entitles them to heaven.

The typical funeral will have the deceased eulogized by speakers listing their good works. We’re not against that, for scripture does say “Their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13). But that doesn’t get anyone into heaven.

5) Let’s quit acquiescing when mourners talk about the deceased now becoming “an angel in heaven.” No they’re not. There is not a single word in all Scripture that leads us to believe mortals turn into angels in glory.

It’s not necessary to correct family members who say in their eulogies that “heaven has just gained another angel,” or such manmade mythology. But when asked, we should tell the truth.

6) Preach the cross of Jesus. Preach his death, the shedding of His blood, and His resurrection.

When people say, “Well, I believe he was a good person and he deserved heaven,” or something similar, if we’re in a setting where this is in order I will ask if we can talk about that a moment. If they’re good with that, I’ll ask, “Then what was the purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world and dying on the cross if all we had to do was to be good?”

God could have sent a carrier pigeon with a note saying, “Y’all be good, now, hear?”

Most people have never stopped to think about that. Tell me how pitiful that is. All we’re talking about is the most important thing in all eternity.

7) Let’s call people to salvation in our funeral messages.

Professor and denominational statesman Ken Chafin used to say, “I tell my seminary students when you stand at the graveside, give the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because it’s the only word in town!”

There is only one “Gospel” and this is it. It is good news, in that it addresses and remedies the bad news that so pervades the world and terrorizes men’s hearts.

As the angel told the shepherds, this is “good news of great joy for all the people. Unto you is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

I hate funerals. And take a little solace in the fact that our Lord did too. He broke up every funeral procession He came to by raising the dead. Scripture says the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (I Corinthians 15:26).

Until then, let’s try to get as many people in the kingdom as we can.

Post script: I am not suggesting we take advantage of people in their moments of grief when they are most vulnerable. But we must keep reminding ourselves that we are not selling a product here and not trying to talk anyone into buying a used car or the Brooklyn Bridge. We’re hoping to say something that God will use to turn them to righteousness and eternal life. Whether they appreciate it now or not, they will later.

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