May 1, 2008
Preaching the Funeral Service - Graveside Ministry
[This is the third and final article dealing with preaching the funeral service.]
Once the funeral sermon is complete, it’s time for the funeral procession from the funeral home or church to the cemetery. (Exceptions to this are memorial services in which the decedent is not physically present; the decedent is being buried in a distant city with another officiant handling the interment; and cremations, which often take place prior to the funeral service, making them memorial services with no interment ceremony.)
The interment portion of the funeral service should not become a minifuneral. This portion of the service is to help the grieving family transition their loved one’s body to its final resting place.
When the funeral procession arrives at the grave site, the minister should join the pall bearers at the back of the hearse. Whether there are military rites or not, the following procedures should be followed. Again, regional traditions might change some of the specifics, but typically the minister will lead the funeral procession from the hearse to the actual grave.
When you arrive at the grave site, you should stand at the head of the casket (though location sometimes make this difficult). The funeral director will dismiss the pall bearers. When the family and friends have been assembled, the funeral director will signal that it is time for you to begin. I characteristically remind those present of the hope that the resurrection provides. I thank the friends and acquaintances who have lent their support to the grieving family. I also remind them that the family will need them more in the weeks and months to come than they do right now. When the funeral service is a distant memory to friends, it is still a sore wound in the lives of those closest to the decedent.
Next, I read Scripture. Texts that I might use include John 11:25, 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 5:1-8. Following the reading of Scripture, I close the committal time with prayer. If military rites are being observed, the military will handle the next phase of the committal service. The officer in charge will give the primary family member a U.S. flag as a token of the nation’s gratitude for their loved one’s military service. Following this, I move to the family members and gently whisper my assurance of continued prayers and my availability to them, shaking their hands as I address them. If I am unable to speak to a particular family member at that time, I will linger for a moment after the funeral director dismisses everyone. If I have spoken to everyone, I will quietly make my way back to my car and depart the cemetery.
I usually make a follow-up phone call within a week of the funeral to assure the family of my prayers and to offer any pastoral care that might be needed. My ministry assistant keeps a log of deaths and reminds me at three months, six months and one year intervals so that I am able to continue pastoral care. I always send a one-year anniversary card, acknowledging that the first anniversary of the death of a loved one is not easy and that we as a church family are remembering the family during this time.
When families face the death of a loved one, you will never know how important your pastoral ministry is to them. Preaching the funeral service provides the opportunity to be their hope in a time of despair.