How to Lead an Unbeliever's Funeral
Although I had been in professional ministry (off and on) for 15 years when I moved to rural Vermont in 2009, I had never officiated a funeral. Weddings, yes. Funerals, no. But I was quickly baptized by fire in this small town, and in the last two-plus years as pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church I have lost track of the number of funerals I've either participated in or officiated over. And the majority of those funerals have been for those who did not publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of eternal life.
It turns out that even in irreligious New England, where a large percentage of the populace have not set foot in a church building in several decades, and a growing percentage have never set foot in a church building their enter lives, tradition wins out when a loved one dies. You can ignore religion your whole life but never at death. And because I am the pastor of the only Protestant church in our town, I most often receive the call to bless those who mourn.
I have officiated funerals for old men who went out shaking their fist (metaphorically) at God, for middle-aged men well-regarded but without much use for religion, for young men who overdosed and committed suicide. (In God's providence, I have also presided over the funerals of dear saints---all elderly women so far---and I am grateful for the tone of victory that more accompanies these services.) Each of these funerals presents its own unique challenges. As I have preached several funerals for one large family in the last two years, I have even presented the gospel from different angles and from different biblical texts than the customary funeral references.
I am still learning how to do this. I don't believe I have it all figured out. But I have done a lot of thinking through this sort of service and the stakes involved. While I would not say everyone ought to do it the same way, here are some thoughts born from much reflection and continued experience with preaching the funerals of unbelievers.
Presence Before Professionalism
When funeral home directors call to ask about availability to officiate a non-churchgoing family's funeral for a loved one, the last thing I want to be thinking is business as usual. No family wants the pastor they've contacted to treat this aspect of his ministry as the florist does the flowers. Many times they do not know what to ask for and what they expect. So after saying yes to the one making the funeral arrangements, I make contact with a member of the family to let them know I am thinking about them, praying for them, and would like to meet with a representative of the family at their earliest convenience to talk about the service.
Sometimes families don't care to meet with me, and that's okay. But most often I host a relative or two in my office, or I go to their homes to discuss the arrangements. But the first thing we always discuss is the departed. I may ask to see pictures. One particular meeting around a family's kitchen table I could sense was particularly helpful for them, largely because at one point they started reminding each other of funny stories about their son/brother, something I had facilitated but then merely observed. I didn't even say much in that meeting, but afterward they related to church member how impressed they were by my presence and how much it meant to them.
I have sat with the dying in hospitals and funeral homes, sharing the joy of Jesus with them in their final hours. I have counseled feuding family members in my office as they seek to honor their loved one while sorting through animosity long-held with each other. I have held hands at a crime scene and at the morgue while a mother waited to identify her son's body. When a loved one dies, it is not business as usual for their family, so it cannot be business as usual for the minister either.
When possible, I also attend the post-funeral receptions and luncheons. I am introverted by nature, so it's difficult sometimes to strike up conversations with strangers, but I fit in very well in this regard with Vermonters. I'm not expected to be gladhanding and inserting myself into family conversations and sharing. But I have been told that being available has been very helpful. Never underestimate the power of presence. Coming alongside a family, even in silence---sometimes, especially in silence---beats making their needs look like something you're checking off your to-do list.
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which professionalism can be expected, needed, and quite helpful.
Professionalism Can be Pastoral
It is true, brothers, that we are not professionals. But I've learned from visiting with families deep in fresh grief that taking on the burden of planning the funeral service without leaving much up to them can be very comforting. Few have put much forethought into these arrangements. And many families who are not churchgoing don't have much preconception about what a minister does, what a service ought to look like, or what's appropriate to include. I am asked for permission about Scripture readings and reflections quite a bit; despite the irreligious bent of Vermont, there is still respect for and deference to tradition. Families whose mourning takes precedence often defer to me in determining how a service goes.
When I go over a funeral service order with families, many times they simply nod and reply with some variation of "Whatever you think will be fine." I have learned over time that one of the best things I can do for these families is go into "professional mode." As they are handling family and friends coming into town, dealing with all the other goings-on attendant to the loss of a loved one, and just sorting through their own feelings, taking "think about the funeral service" off their plate can be a major relief. And I've noticed how the professionalism of good funeral home directors and morticians can be a calming service in this time as well. Most families just don't know what's supposed to happen, so knowing that the minister does and will take care of it is a blessing.
Proclamation Trumps Presumption
Here is the most sobering aspect of preaching a funeral for an (apparent) unbeliever. Funerals are rife with comforting assurance. "He's in a better place now." "She's up there dancing with Jesus." "He was a good kid, and now he's one of God's angels." When you open up the floor for sharing from those gathered, the result can be a mishmash of pseudo-religious sentimentality, sometimes gritty stories about what a saintly cuss the old curmudgeon was, and sometimes borderline heresy.
When irreligious families who respect religion lose a loved one, they don't wrestle with whether the departed now faces eternal judgment. They assume he's not. He or she was "a good person." My opinion on this custom---and better pastoral minds than mine may and will differ---is that it is the minister's job to relieve them of these assumptions in a circumstantially appropriate way.
No one has ever asked me, "Is my loved one in heaven?" because they all assume he or she is. In these moments I remind myself that I am an invited guest to this family's mourning. It is better to speak my piece about the true gospel and rely on the Spirit to work the logic internally against mourners' assumptions than to directly and personally contradict with a "Well, actually" to people who are sorting out their grief and trying to offer comfort. There is a time for personal correction on these matters, but I am not convinced that time should come in the middle of a funeral service.
At the same time, I cannot shake the reality that none truly knows the way God knows where anyone's eternal destiny lay. Salvation for the thief on the cross is enough precedence for us to remain humble on this point. I believe in deathbed conversions, not because grace is cheap but precisely because it's deep enough to cover a sinful person's long, long life of disobedience. Therefore I have come to the perspective that declining to declare that the departed is in hell is not the same thing as denying the reality of hell.
Proclamation Trusts Providence
Still, the minister's first loyalty is to Jesus Christ, not to any family. I customarily decline payment from unbelieving families for officiating their funerals because I never want to unwittingly bind my message to the dictates of those paying for it.
I have never at any funeral for someone who did not live a life of public faith said anything about him being in heaven, playing a round of golf with God, or the like. It is just as important to avoid false assurance as it is to avoid presumptuous condemnations. Instead, I typically outline briefly what the Bible says about grief, insist from the Scriptures that Jesus himself experienced grief, and then present the biblical storyline of where death comes from, what it means for us still alive, and what it means for us in death. I make sure to say that those who reject Jesus will die eternally while those who repent of their sins and trust Jesus will live eternally, going to heaven when they die and enjoying the new heavens and the new earth on the future day of their own bodily resurrection. (This latter part is quite a hit up here since most people have never heard of the Bible's promise of "life after life after death" in this way, and the notion of a restored earth is very compelling to Vermonters who love the created earth very much already.)
By declining to presume where the departed is but committing to proclaim the eternal realities of any departed person in relation to Jesus, I am throwing myself onto the sovereignty of God who will use his gospel to spiritually awaken his children to desire his Son.
There are other opportunities for ministers who stay in touch with grieving families to more directly and personally share the gospel of Jesus later on, but in the funeral service itself, a clear, concise, unequivocal proclamation of the good news disconnected from presumptuous condemnation of or false assurance about the departed is the wisest course. I will even make note to say that trust in Jesus alone is the only way to heaven, for in these parts a New Age-y kind of pluralism is both prevalent and latent.
These are rules of funeral thumb. They may change given the needs of your context or community, but I believe they present a way faithful to Jesus Christ and the ministry of his Word among unbelievers in the mission field of New England.