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Pastoring Memorial Services

As you may know if you follow my Twitter feed, I had a long weekend. One of my grandmothers passed away. Initially I was asked to say a few words as a grandchild while someone else performed the ceremony. Two O'Clock on the day before the funeral the family asked me to do the whole service which would be at 10 a.m. the next morning. I'm 4 hours away. You do the math.

I knew this would be a challenge but fortunately or unfortunately I've done plenty of funerals to have a grasp of the situation.

When I talk to my friends I have found that a lot of my peers haven't done many funeral services so I thought I'd give you some thoughts I had over the weekend.

In our family's case the service was beautiful and I received a terrific amount of positive feedback.

So if you're wondering what goes into a Pastor's mind or if you're a Pastor who hasn't had to perform a service before, here are a few things I thought about this weekend:

1. Remember your audience- I always keep in mind that funerals are for the living, not the dead. While every service is in honor of the person's life who is no longer with us, the people you will serve are sitting in mourning. They are the audience and they are each individually looking to you for support.

2. I do memorial services, not funerals- For me it makes a difference in how I approach that service. A funeral takes on a connotation of finality and focuses on death. I treat the day as a continuation and focus instead on life. Because I hold this view I am able to point greiving people to life and to Jesus instead of death and the grave.

3. Get a book- When I first started doing funerals I went to Lifeway and picked up a little black book that has samples of services. I use next to none of it because it seems rather archaic, however, it did provide the skeleton for me to use and make my own format.

4. Get to know the deceased- I ALWAYS take a legal pad and get on the phone with several family members and friends. I simply let them talk. I take every story no matter how silly and I write down details. It's helpful for me as I consider how to lead the service. I never do a generic service. I think that's a disservice.

5. Find a theme- I believe every life has a theme that speaks of redemption in some way. The theme that came from my grandmother's funeral was "Chance and Certainty". While my grandmother loved games of chance... she equally made certain about things she loved. I was able to take that theme and build a talk as well as eventually lead to the gospel. Chance vs. Certainty. Another example is a funeral I did for a father of a church member. I found that many of the stories were of deep sea fishing. I found a poem about a boat going off into the distance and how that boat wasn't lost... it was just out of sight. It was a beautiful picture of eternity. In that case I also shared the gospel by letting folks know how the bible assures us through Jesus that we too can take that journey. The theme for me always points to Jesus, Eternity and the fact that the day isn't about death but about life.

6. Help the Healing Process- I make sure every memorial service includes a time of Looking Back, Looking Around and Looking Forward. Usually early on in the service I let the audience know what a memorial service is for and the three main places we will look. This helps them 'follow me' pretty easily even if I've never seen them before. The audience gets the sense of "Okay, this guy is going to help me look back, around and forward." There is a sense that there is purpose in our time together... they are participating in a process... not just waiting for the preacher to finish reading some script.

Looking Back- Remember the person's life and legacy. I use stories and humor as well as sentimental moments.

Looking Around- The audience is looking for hope. I acknowledge that every emotion in that moment is valid and that we don't all heal the same way. I verbally instruct everyone to allow friends and family to heal at their own pace and express their greif however they best do that. Some will cry, some will not, some will laugh, some will not. Some will be angry, some will be stoic. As we look around the important thing is that we all help one another along the way. For some people they have dealt with the loss before the service and for others the service is bringing a sense of finality while for others they are still in denial and it will be a week before they break. I usually say "Please do not expect others to grieve as you grieve. As you want to heal the way you heal, give others the freedom to heal at their pace."

Looking Forward- This is the section where I remind them that where their loved-one is at this moment I can assure them based on God's word that their loved one would want me to tell them how to experience an eternity with God. I share the gospel and give them a picture of heaven while reminding them that there is no more pain, tears or hardship in heaven and they too can ensure that as they look forward they can do so with confidence if they trust Jesus Christ as their way to heaven.

7. Make it Personal- This goes along with finding a theme but there is nothing more important to me than making certain I don't come across as impersonal. I make sure to ask for pronunciation of names, verify dates and places, etc. I do my best not to come across as someone who had little to no connection. In several of the funerals I've done I have not known the deceased but if you listen and ask questions people usually will tell you the main points of a person's life. You can help the family by making sure that you highlight that person. Similar to a sound man at a concert, I feel I've done a great job if no one ever remembers my name. If they can remember their loved one, learn to heal and look forward to Jesus... the day is a win.

8. Learn Protocol- Especially if you're new at this. Learn things like where to stand and what is expected of you. There are several ways. First, read that book! Second, talk a LOT with the funeral director if you're at a funeral home. They do these things like clockwork. Even if you have no funeral on your plate right now I suggest anyone who is ordained to go and talk with their local funeral home staff to learn protocol. There are traditions you want to keep and basics you need to know. Like:
1. Is there an internment?
2. If so, am I driving or will I ride with someone?
3. Will I walk ahead of the casket?
4. At the graveside, where is the head of the casket?

These are all things that you need to know. Most funeral homes have amazing service for the Pastor if you just introduce yourself and ask questions.

9. Make yourself Available- People aren't usually ready to talk to the Pastor at the service. They should however know how to get ahold of you. At the close of every service I let the family and friends know that I am available to help them walk through this process should they need me. Usually the Pastors name and contact info can be published in the program so I usually make reference to that or mention that the family will be able to get in touch with me should I be needed. You have to know that people are hurting and this may be one of the most sensitive times you have with people. Don't miss the opportunity to let them see that you love them.

10. Expect Nothing in Return- Memorial services are times when as Pastors we can genuinely provide Christian love and hope to people who need it with no expectation of personal gain. Some funeral homes will build in an honorarium for your services. This is normal and typically is a way for the family to thank you for providing healing to them at this time of need. But unfortunately there is an ugly underbelly in the ministry that makes me want to punch Pastors in the throat. I think it's pretty low to charge ridiculous fees for doing funerals. I had a mentor tell me one time. "Tally, when you get ordained there is basically two things you will be able to do for people that most others cannot: Marry 'em and Bury 'em." Don't use those times as a time for personal gain.

Most of the time I have been given a small gift from the family but I have been embarrassed to hear how some Pastors charge a week's wages for about 4 hours of their time. If you care about the people Jesus called you to reach at all, you should look at these times as opportunities to simply serve in a manner consistent with Jesus washing feet.

Ultimately, if you are able to have tact and you get to know the family, then you will be able to really make a difference in a LOT of lives every time you help people in the grieving process. Treat it as an honor and opportunity. Treat your calling with respect and the lives of those who look to you with respect. Be a professional with how you conduct yourself and you will find reward and honor in helping people in these times.

If you are a Pastor who wants more information on anything I've said, please let me know, I'll be glad to help.

posted by Tally Wilgis @ Thursday, July 24, 2008


At 12:26 AM, Blogger Tony said...

Hey man!
Thanks for the info... will keep in mind.


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