Preaching a funeral sermon for the first time?
Let me guess. No seminary class prepared you to step into the reality of a grieving family that’s lost a loved one.
Nothing prepared you to be the person everyone is looking to as they process their grief and look for someone to help them find hope in the midst of loss.
I won’t sugarcoat things.
Preparing a funeral sermon isn’t easy for a number of reasons. But it isn’t a hopeless task, either.
In fact, it’s a unique opportunity to deliver an impactful message during a time of mourning.
It’s possible to deliver a sermon that balances an honest assessment of someone’s life, the larger implications of death, and the neverending hope that we have in Christ.
Again, you can find that balance, but it isn’t easy. It takes some serious focus and commitment. That’s why you’re here, right?
Let’s dig into the details of delivering a short, powerful funeral sermon, starting with the difficulties that it entails.
The Challenges of Preaching a Sermon for Funeral Services
Writing a sermon is never easy. But if there’s one kind of sermon that is the hardest to give, it’s for the loss of a loved one.
For one thing, you don’t always know the person who died well.
Even if you do know them well, you have to deal with the nuances of their personality as you prepare to talk about them in fairly intimate detail for several minutes straight.
It’s a far cry from a Sunday sermon, where you can easily avoid personal anecdotes and opinions about specific individuals.
To make things even stickier, you’re rarely burying a saint — even though the pressure is very real to make them seem better than they were.
As a pastor, you also have to consider the fact that preaching a sermon at a funeral is one of the best opportunities you’ll have to be in front of a largely unchurched audience.
This leads to the natural question: If you don’t share the Gospel then, when will you?
However, an insensitive Gospel presentation can turn people off of the Christian faith just as easily as a powerful invitation to the Cross can turn them on. If you casually or recklessly use a funeral sermon as a chance to “proselytize,” it can quickly leave your audience feeling hostile and upset.
Don’t forget, they’re already in an emotional state. While sharing the Gospel is paramount for a Christian, you need to do so prayerfully and with tact.
There’s also the fact that you’re not just penning a sermon to encourage everyone in your audience equally. You’re writing a funeral service specifically targeting the family of the deceased individual. Your message is part of your pastoral care and responsibility for those individuals, and you want to deliver at a high level when minds are in dark places and emotions are bottoming out.
Finally, not to sound calloused, but you also have to factor in scheduling. Funerals don’t happen in a vacuum. You need to fit the memorial service in alongside everything else you’re tackling that week, and doing so can really leave you feeling pressed for time.
Okay, so with so many challenges facing you, how can you deliver a funeral sermon on a high level? You need to start by considering what a funeral sermon is in the first place and the nuances that it presents compared to your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Sunday sermon.
Understanding the Nuances of Funeral Sermons
The first thing you want to understand when preparing a sermon for funeral services is the many different nuances that come with this kind of sermon and setting. Because they’re so emotional, funerals bring up a host of dynamics a pastor needs to factor in as they prepare to preach.
Here are a few examples of different things I’ve found you need to be aware of when preaching at a funeral:
- Belief (or lack of belief): This is the number-one issue with many funeral sermons. Reconciling your knowledge of a faithful Biblical representation of life and death with the personal convictions and faith that the deceased held in his or her life can be a major challenge.
- Theological gaps: There are often differences between what the deceased believed and what the rest of the family believes. You need to navigate these with respect to both the person you’re honoring and their loved ones.
- Family tensions: Sometimes funerals bring together ex-spouses, estranged kids, and others who, let’s just say, didn’t get along well when the deceased was alive. That inevitably ushers in all kinds of dynamics you have to think about and address as you fill the role of the primary spiritual leader in the room.
- Navigating pastoral duties and family wishes: Often, preachers must walk a tightrope between being faithful to the Gospel and respectful of the family’s wishes. Sometimes, a family might ask you to preach at the funeral, but they’ll clarify that they “don’t want you sharing anything about Jesus,” or they’ll introduce all kinds of elements into the proceedings that you may not be comfortable adding.
- Honoring the right person: There can be a very real tension between wanting to honor the person who died and also honoring Christ. Often, families will want to have a celebration of life … but they’ll neglect or even avoid the even more important celebration of faith.
- Balancing empathy and truth: It can be hard to walk the line between being empathetic and comforting to the aggrieved while also remaining truthful. (A good example is answering that age-old question, “Do you think they’re in heaven?”)
- Dealing with the raw grief in the service: This is always a factor, but it can be particularly poignant if the death is sudden or tragic, such as when the deceased is young or cut down in the prime of life.
All of these complicating factors can make a funeral sermon feel overwhelming, which is why it’s important to invest the time and energy upfront in creating a sermon that can stir hearts and lift spirits, even in such a unique setting.
The Power of a Well-Crafted Funeral Sermon
With all of that said, you might be wondering why anyone would ever sign up to preach a funeral message in the first place. It just feels like an endless string of traps and tripwires!
But don’t let my warnings detract from the importance of funeral sermons. These are very real things to keep in mind, but they aren’t deal-breakers.
On the contrary, they’re simply the nuances that you should consider if you want to take advantage of the most important and incredible opportunity that funerals and memorial services provide.
I’m talking about the fact that they’re one of the most effective witnesses you have in this culture.
This is coupled with the fact that a funeral sermon can be a powerful act of service and love toward a grieving family. To take preaching a sermon at a funeral seriously is to take both evangelism and excellent pastoral care seriously.
The Number One Rule for Funeral Sermons
A well-crafted sermon message that takes into account the factors above can be one of the most powerful ways to reach lost souls, challenge unchurched individuals, and light a fresh passion in believers.
I say “well-crafted,” though, because you can’t just repackage an old sermon or even make a new one following your usual preparatory format.
For a funeral, you want to follow a few critical rules, the most important of which is to keep things on the shorter side.
Unless you’re burying the Pope, think 10 minutes, not 30 minutes. A short, memorable sermon that doesn’t have people looking at their watch will be far more powerful than a long message that drones on long after people have tuned out.
Of course, while crafting short, powerful funeral sermons is important, it isn’t the only thing. Let’s take a look at some of the other ways you can tailor a funeral sermon to address some of the dynamics listed above.
Tailoring Sermons for Funeral and Memorial Settings
Here are a few tips on how to tailor funeral sermons to help you handle things like family tensions, high-strung emotions, and the personal history of each individual, all while still preaching faithfully.
Invite Eulogies Into the Mix
Don’t feel like you need to do all of the public speaking during the service. In fact, inviting people who knew the person well to give a eulogy or remembrance can take a lot of pressure off of you.
Try to line up a few individuals that you can trust to stay focused, on-point, and brief. Ask them to share some intimate stories and portraits before you preach. This paves the way for you to deliver a short, punchy sermon that can serve as a final emotional and spiritual push rather than needing to “carry the weight” of remembering the entire person’s life in your message.
PRO TIP: Remember, most people who give a eulogy at a funeral don’t speak in public. They’ll say yes because of the emotional weight of the circumstances, but they won’t become experts overnight. The biggest issue is that they’ll tend to go over time. Plan that in as you prep them.
I generally tell them to tailor their remarks to five minutes, knowing they’ll probably go 10 minutes. The point is to avoid the “runaway train” of a rambling anecdote or an excessively detailed account of someone’s life. Proactively dealing with the time issue helps keep the service short and memorable.
Tell The Truth (With Love)
I’m going to be really honest here. Sometimes, you’re going to bury a person who was unkind. It’s a statistical truth and one that can weigh heavily on a preacher’s mind.
Personally, early on in my ministry, I felt the pressure to make everyone seem “perfect” at their funeral.
It was bad enough that after one funeral for a particularly salty individual, an old-timer named Walter came up to me and said, “I don’t recognize the person you buried.”
Point well taken, Walter.
Since then, I’ve learned to stop lying at funerals.
Sure, you don’t want to say bad things about the dead. There’s no reason to go out of your way to dig up negative details or tear someone down based on their life choices.
But you have to balance that with the fact that naming the truth is a big part of pastoral care.
You don’t have to be verbose in your honesty. Being truthful can be as simple as adding a line to the message that goes something like this:
“As many of you know, Dave could be difficult at times, making it hard on those around him. But deep down, you’re here because you loved him, and he loved you.”
Another option could be:
“The kids tell me mom could be pretty self-absorbed at times and had her own battles with alcohol. But they also knew she’d be there for them in a heartbeat if they needed her.”
Acknowledging who you’re really remembering can be a refreshing way to help people move through their grief. It’s relatable, and the honesty can make it easier for others to accept who someone was and how they can genuinely remember them, with both the good and the bad stuff.
For Nonbelievers, Focus on What You Believe
At almost every funeral today, you’re going to have a crowd with a few believers and more than a few non-Christians, which already makes addressing them as a whole tricky.
In addition, some of the people you bury won’t have an active faith in Christ — even though they asked a Christian pastor to do the service. So what do you do?
When you’re preparing memorial sermons for someone who wasn’t a believer, I’ve found it helpful to remember the person as they were. At the same time, don’t be afraid to talk about what the Scripture teaches.
Rather than using wordplay to transform a deceased nonbeliever into the picture of an idyllic Christian, turn once again to my favorite funeral sermon tool: honesty.
Remember the person’s life as they were. Again, you don’t necessarily have to go out of your way to “classify” them as a believer or non-believer. (Only God really knows that anyway.) Just provide an honest, unbiased account of the person.
Once you work through that personal summary, you can add something like, “For those of us who remain, we’re comforted and given hope by the Scripture that tells us…” This opens the door for you to segue into a more hope-filled, Christ-centered message — which, when tastefully done, is often just what the doctor ordered.
This balance of honest summarization and the tactful but open declaration of spiritual truth is powerful. It’s a way of proclaiming the Gospel without the need to pretend someone was something that they never were.
Of course, if you’re doing a service for a Christian, things are much easier. Unless there are some odd familial requests or restrictions, you can tie in the Gospel message to their lives as you go along, turning every part of the sermon into a hopeful and exciting celebration of faith and life.
What Does a Short Funeral Sermon Outline Look Like?
Okay, so how do you pull all of this together? How do you balance the emotions, the individual history, and the desire to declare the truth of the Cross in each sermon you need to prepare?
Remember, you’ll generally have a lot of unchurched people in the room. So you don’t want to get too complicated or theological.
Instead, stay short, simple, and focused on core truths.
Here’s a short funeral service outline for pastors you can use to help you get started on your next message:
- Introduction: Say a few words about “why we’re all here.” Use this as a way to pace yourself and help everyone settle in and focus — especially if you’re coming in on the heels of several emotional eulogies and remembrances.
- Personal reflection: This is where you can include some observations about the person. Don’t be afraid to draw from your own interactions with him or her if you have any. It’s also critical to name the tragedy if the death was sudden or premature.
- Relevant bible verses that offer comfort and hope: This is where you get to preach! You know how to do that. Remember, 10 minutes is a good total, and you need time to open and close. So aim for a short explanation of a text (no more than five minutes). This should bring comfort and hope or illuminate what was special about the person who died.
- A message to those who remain: Follow up your primary message with an offer of encouragement to mourners as well as comfort and even hope to those who remain.
- Closing prayer: It’s good to conclude with a pastoral prayer, thanking God for the person’s life and lifting up the family who survived them by name.
Like any sermon outline, the above is meant to keep your message focused. Don’t feel like you need to follow this structure too strictly. Just remember, you’re aiming for a very short, concise delivery. Resist the urge to include anything that doesn’t have a distinct and meaningful reason to be included.
Effective Delivery Techniques
Okay, we’ve covered how to handle the nuances and the best ways to structure a funeral sermon. But how do you deliver a short, powerful funeral message?
This is important, as often the biggest issue with an effective sermon isn’t what you’re saying but how you say it.
The key to remember here is that at a funeral service, more than any other setting, tone matters as much as content.
If you’re too upbeat, you can be accused of being tone-deaf. (And rightly so!) At the same time, unless it’s a deeply tragic event, if you’re too somber, you’re going to leave your audience wondering where the hope is.
Emotional balance, vocal emphasis, pacing, and self-control are essential for striking the right tone with a funeral sermon.
In addition, if there’s one dominant emotion that needs to come through at a funeral, it’s authenticity. The more real and authentic you are, the more people will resonate with what you’re saying.
Look people in the eye. Speak from the heart. Mean what you say.
Yes, you can have notes ready to follow, and you definitely don’t want to say anything you regret at a funeral. But you need to back up even the best content with an honest delivery.
Make sure you give your listeners the most genuine, kind, and authentic version of yourself possible.
Authenticity is a game changer at a funeral.
People have seen too many extremes, from “rent-a-pastors” who mechanically read a printed order all the way to tone-deaf preachers who orate like they’re at a giant crusade.
What will surprise them is a real, genuine and kind person who cares about them and the person they lost.
98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares. It’s as simple as that. In a funeral service, that role should be filled by the preacher.
Repeat Your Bottom Line: How to Conclude the Sermon
Of all the techniques you can use to conclude a sermon, the most memorable (and often the best option) is to repeat what you’ve defined as the “bottom line” for the message.
A bottom line is simply the main point of your message expressed in a memorable way. It can be extremely simple, but it should always be thoughtful.
In the case of a funeral sermon, I’ve found that it’s usually best to focus the bottom line on God. People will undoubtedly remember the deceased. There’s no need to worry about that. So, I try to focus the bottom line on what I want people to remember about God.
A few examples of bottom lines include:
- Jesus’s resurrection points to the coming resurrection.
- God’s willingness to embrace pain shows us that he’s willing to embrace your pain.
- God can be trusted with your grief. After all, where else would you take it?
Resist the urge to copy these verbatim. Instead, feel free to use them as helpful starting points to tailor to your message and get you oriented toward your sermon’s core point.
PRO TIP: If you aren’t sure how to craft a memorable takeaway or central point for your sermons, here is a cheat sheet I created to help.
As you re-emphasize your bottom line and wrap things up, it’s common to follow a message with a prayer, a committal, and a charge or benediction.
At that point, you’ve incorporated the major elements of what makes for a good funeral service. Hopefully, you’ve managed to stay brief, on-point, and God-focused. If you can do that, you can deliver a message that will resonate in the hearts of believers and nonbelievers alike as they continue to process their grief and consider their place in the world moving forward.