How does a pastor conduct the funeral of someone he did not know?

I am preaching a funeral today.  It is someone I did not know.  I have no idea what her spiritual condition was.  A local funeral home contacted me and asked if I could help.  I have probably done a 100 of these types of funerals in the last 10 years.  How does a pastor know what to do and say for a funeral service like this?  These 4 elements below can and should be applied in both this scenario, as well as the funeral of one of your most faithful church members:

1) The Unchanging character of God:  You have all kinds of people who come to a funeral who are evaluating this death (and God’s role in it)  in all sorts of ways.  We must use the objective truth of God’s Word to cut through all the different subjective conclusions and judgments about God that are being drawn in the minds of people.   I accomplish this by allowing the first words out of my mouth to be Psalm 145:17-21.

2) The hope of the gospel:  This is our hope in life and certainly death.  Therefore, the gospel must be clearly preached at every funeral you conduct.  However, the setting of a funeral demands it be done clearly, yet sensitively.  The best advice I ever received for funerals is this:  Don’t preach the deceased into heaven, don’t preach them into hell, just preach the gospel for the people who are there.  This is most helpful when conducting a funeral for someone with whom you didn’t know or doubted their eternal state.  Regardless, it is a reminder that the gospel is the most important truth we can hold out to those looking for hope in the midst of death.

3) A call to respond to the gospel:  If our focus is to preach the gospel to those who remain, then there must be some call for them to respond to the gospel.  I hope we all agree that you cannot accomplish this in the setting of a funeral by some “hand-raising, music-manipulating, pleading to come forward during the 12th  stanza of Just As I Am“  type of response.  We can, however, plead with these people to respond in repentance and faith once the gospel has been preached in a similar way we should be pleading for sinners to turn to Christ every Sunday we preach.  In both contexts, we trust in our sovereign God to awaken sinners to see their need for Christ and turn to Him as the gospel is faithfully proclaimed.

4) Instruct those present how to grieve:  This is often overlooked as an essential for funerals, but one we must take seriously.  Though the gospel being preached is the most important thing we can say, we also have the task to help these people know how to grieve over this loss.  We accomplish this by walking them through the importance of talking about the deceased, sharing the things they loved about them, the impact the deceased had on them, and the important things they learned from them.  This provides times to laugh and cry, which gives a helpful formula to walk through the grieving process.  I think you will find the family of the deceased most grateful for your effort to instruct them in this way.  As a result, I have found them more receptive to the other “most important and essential” elements that I share.

Pastors, consider how you would approach doing a funeral for someone you did not know.  How would you handle it?  How would you extend care to the family not knowing them or the deceased?  Would you say yes if a funeral home called you with the same request?  I submit to you it is one of the most fruitful and unique evangelistic opportunities we can have as pastors.  As you consider what you would do or say, pray for me as I go and preach this funeral today.

For further book reading on this topic, go here.

Posted in Funerals
10 comments on “How does a pastor conduct the funeral of someone he did not know?
  1. Donna says:

    I can give you a few hints on what NOT to do. When my father died, I pulled his pastor (who had known him only while he was sick with lung cancer) aside. I asked him to PLEASE not exaggerate or tell lies about my father since my oldest sister was going to be there and it would only push her further away from Jesus Christ. During the funeral I cried and cried but not because we were burying my Dad but because the pastor was up there talking about what a GOOD man my Dad was and how he was such a CHRISTIAN man. Knowing my sister was sitting there listening to all this dribble about a man who had hurt us all, who was unrepentant until the hour he died (yes I still hope that during that hour he couldn’t speak he repented some way or other), and who emotionally wrecked all three of his daughters for life, made me want to scream. So PLEASE listen to this article and be careful what you say!!!!

  2. Dana says:

    A pastor friend of our family preached many funerals for people whose spiritual condition was unknown to him. He always started his sermon with highlights of the person’s life, character and deeds, that he learned from the family. Then he would say, “but if _____ John was here today, he wouldn’t want me to talk about him. He would want me to tell you about Jesus.” This is true regardless of the deceased’s eternal fate. I think it is an effective segue to the gospel.

  3. Mark Browne says:

    I have found that the four t’s are helpful when helping people grieve: trust talk time tears. During the trust explanation I talk about the gospel

  4. Ken says:

    In my current setting I am fortunate to be able to visit most families a day or two prior to the funeral service. In one such setting the family told me kindly not to say how good a dad he was, nor how good a husband he had been – because it was just not so. He had been harsh and cruel to them all. However, on his dying bed with one last presentation of the gospel, he did repent and ask Christ into his heart. PTL!

  5. plan cul says:

    Amazing! Its truly remarkable piece of writing, I have got much clear idea on the topic of from this article.

  6. philip Nkunda says:

    im happy to be part of those who benefit knowledge through this plateform. Stay blessed.

  7. Laurie McGrew says:

    My Mother-In-Law who was 85 years old passed away 7/30/16. She had not been a member of a church since childhood. My husband and I called a few churches to see if the Pastor would do a service at her memorial. They told me they would not because they did not know her. The last Pastor I called was Pastor Hartwig from Grace Lutheran Church. I explained myself and asked if he would do the service. His reply was the same as others. I said “this is so discouraging – I thought we are all God’s children and all we are looking for is to have someone bless her ashes and read from the Scripture. He then said “I could say some very blunt things to you right now, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings any more”. I was astonished – all I could say was “thank you for that – have a nice day”. Where is the compassion???

    • Catherine Miller says:

      That is NOT a church, that is NOT a ‘pastor’, that is a man masquerading as Godly, when in fact, he is in it for money and crowd control. How sad for him but lucky for your mother he was not involved.

    • Ronnie says:

      Everyone deserves a dicent funeral; I have done many funerals for people I didn’t know. It’s an opportunity the God gives us to reach out to the families we don’t know. Seek out the positive memories from the family then talk about our hope in Christ.

    • LaTonja Petties-McCarty says:

      Dear Laurie;

      I am so Sorry for all that you had to encounter during your time of bereavement with your Mother-In-Law. I truly hope that you’ll don’t let that deter you from us Good Pastors. In everything there is some good and bad.

      I am — the Senior Pastor of New Revelations Equipping Ministries and I would have never told anyone that. I have done Home Going Services for people that I do not even know, or ever had the pleasure to meet.

      Unfortunately, it is a awkard position. Nevertheless, Our Father will give us the courage to be about his business. It is as I always says: “It’s About the Lord, It is NOT about Me.”

      I take pride in being called and that the father entrust me to bring His WORD to his people.

      I just wanted to apologize on behalf of all the Pastors whom have done whatever they are called to do for the Kingdom.

      Blessings, to you and your family.

      Senior Pastor LaTonja Petties-McCarty
      New Revelations Equipping Ministries
      2001 N Martin Luther King Ave
      Oklahoma City, Ok 73111

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  1. […] Brian Croft has written a helpful post on conducting a funeral for someone you did not know. I have not yet had to do this but am sure I […]

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