Skip to main content

In my 18+ years of pastoring, I have officiated a lot of funerals. Each one is unique, with particular opportunities to minister to the remaining friends and family of the deceased—and particular obstacles that make it harder to serve and help and proclaim God’s comforting and confronting truth. For some funerals, it has been a cherished friend and ministry partner. For other funerals, it has been an almost complete stranger who visited the congregation and sat in the back a few times or a relative of someone that attends the church.

I have assembled seven lessons I have learned over the years that might help you as you are tasked with this somber and serious responsibility.

1. Lean into the traditions of those who have come before us.

You do not need to start from scratch here. I remember the first funeral that I ever did. I felt completely unprepared, as if I was starting from scratch. Since then, I have learned that Christians have been burying their dead for 2000 years, and that there are liturgies and orders of service already written. They can be used and adapted to suit the particular need. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

I would commend The Pastor’s Book by R. Kent Hughes and Douglas O’Donnell
Conducting Gospel Centered Funerals by Brian Croft
There is Hope: Preaching at Funerals by Paul Beasley-Murray
as well as the funeral section in the Book of Common Prayer

2. Honesty is the best policy.

If you did not know the deceased very well, do not pretend you did. Since honesty is the best policy, the preacher at a funeral should be truthful, honest about God’s Word, and honest about the person being memorialized. Sometimes, there may be a temptation to amplify or exaggerate how much you know the person. Yet there is no need to prove to everybody that you were super close with the deceased. If you did not know the person well, do not pretend you did. You can speak about interactions with the person that gave you a glimpse into their character or values, but there is no need to pretend that you were closer than you actually were.

Honesty is also the best policy for speaking about the harm the deceased has caused in their life. There may be people, including relatives, in the congregation who this person has deeply hurt. I believe that it can be appropriate to acknowledge it alongside the positive impact that the person has made. Maybe you could say, “This person has led a complicated life,” or “This individual leaves behind a legacy that includes both good and bad.” Oftentimes, I use Psalm 23 for funeral sermons. Verse 3 says that the Good Shepherd restores the soul, and then the very next thing is He leads me in paths of righteousness for His namesake.

In these situations, I often speak about the need for the soul to be restored and for the Good Shepherd to lead us down paths of righteousness. I also talk about how the soul’s restoration comes first, and the lifestyle change comes next. I also mention that sometimes there is an inconsistency between that, whether in my life or even in the life of Aunt Mary. Nevertheless, we can be thankful for the restorative work and always hope to be led along paths of righteousness.

3. Do not preach anyone into heaven, and do not condemn anyone to hell.

Funerals are not the best place to highlight any level of uncertainty you have about someone’s eternal destiny or where they are at the moment. Of course, let me be clear: I am not speaking about believers who have trusted Jesus and lived a life of faithfulness. We can have confidence in those situations. Recall 1 John 5:12. In these cases, we can know that the deceased has eternal life. For the believer, this is a signed, sealed, delivered, and done deal.

Instead, I am speaking of those on the margins of church life. Sometimes, I get asked to perform funerals for people in that situation. They did not leave a very clear testimony or statement of faith. Perhaps they attended church occasionally, or they sometimes liked to listen to the religious radio station. When I perform those funerals, I am not going to announce publicly that they are condemned to hell, nor do I want to fabricate some kind of assurance about their eternal salvation. I do not comment on those areas where I am not sure. As I lead a funeral service, particularly as I preach the funeral sermon, I am offering comfort and hope to the living and the grieving. I am not trying to speculate or pontificate about where Aunt Mary is right now, but I want to speak about the offer of salvation to all gathered. The living people in the room need to know how to be saved.

4. Use their Bible.

Use the deceased’s Bible. This is something that I have been doing for years and years, and it always brings a serious, somber weight into the room. Ask the family members if you can borrow the deceased’s Bible and spend time with it in the days or hours leading up to the funeral. I leaf through it and find the highlighted verses. I also look for the folded pages or scribbled notes.

You will want to include those in your sermon. You can speak to the gathered congregation at a funeral and say, “Here is a verse that meant so much to Aunt Mary. She not only highlighted it, but she also underlined it. She also circled a word. Listen as I read this portion from Aunt Mary’s Bible aloud.” This takes flexibility on the part of the preacher. It also means that you cannot just have one favorite funeral sermon that you use over and over and over again. Instead, you serve the family well and honor the deceased person by looking through the record of the deceased’s faith or devotional practices by combing through the pages of their Bible.

5. Make sure that Scripture gets the last word.

In some funerals, there are many eulogies. People come and share their recollections or remembrances or stories about the deceased. You never know what they are going to say. I have been present for some pretty unhinged stories in the past, including even some poor theology about how the deceased is now an angel in heaven or this, that, or the other. I find it valuable to thank those giving eulogies after they all get a chance to say their bit. Be sure, though, that the final word is what God has to say, whether through preaching or a scripture reading.

6. Do not preach too long.

Ten to fifteen minutes should be plenty, even less if possible. Many of us who preach are used to talking for 30 or 40 minutes. That is what is expected on Sunday morning. But I must remind you that a funeral is not a Sunday morning service. The family and friends are emotionally exhausted. Some of them are at their brink. So, you need to be brief and clear.

7. Do not leave too early.

As people are mingling and eating finger food, there are plenty of opportunities for you to connect with these hurting people. Be quick to ask questions. For example, “How did you know the deceased?” You can also ask them if they have any memories they would like to share with you. Or you could ask them if they have a religious background, saying perhaps, “What is this like for you?” Be ready to listen well and to be present for friends and family. It is tempting to close your Bible, shake hands with everybody, and then leave for your next appointment. But in my 20 years of pastoral experience and the dozens of funerals I have officiated, I have found a great openness and a real appreciation for when the minister sticks around and is available for those mourning the loss of their relative or their friend.


Thank you for being willing to serve the family and friends who are in their time of grief. I hope these seven lessons I have learned will be helpful to you as you comfort the grieving and proclaim the hope of the gospel in the face of death.

I commend to you these two episodes of the Expositors Collective Podcast:

In Times of Loss: Preaching at Funerals and Consoling the Grieving with Dr Paul Beasley-Murray
Preaching at Funerals: Nick Cady and Mike Neglia

Mike Neglia is the lead pastor at Calvary Cork, having moved to Ireland from Fallbrook, California, in 2003. In addition to pursuing a master’s degree at Western Seminary, Mike serves on the Calvary Global Network Executive Team and hosts the Expositors Collective podcast.