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.

  • John Finkelde

    Presence before professionalism – like that phrase. People in grief want a person who can empathise, comfort & say just the right thing – I think pastors are ideal for this role. Thanks for the post

  • Stan Fowler

    Wonderful insights that match my experience. The truth about life and death can be communicated without speculation concerning the deceased person.

  • Lee Dyck

    Thanks Jared, this was a very helpful and encouraging reminder.

  • Steve Edwards

    Very insightful article. Although I am not a professional minister; I have often thought about how to conduct myself, to include what to say, at the funeral of a non-believer. With that in mind, this article is relevant to ALL believers in attendance at one of these funerals. I would add one more point regarding the perception of the destiny of the deceased. While making the point that no one “truly knows the way God knows where anyone’s eternal destiny lay”; I would publicly express the presumption that regardless of where the deceased is now, he/she would want to know that those they left behind ARE destined for eternal life in Heaven. I would then share the clear and simple message of how they can KNOW that their eternal destiny is assured to be with God by trusting in Christ and Him alone.

  • Doc B

    It is surprising to me how much similarity under equating circumstances exists here in the buckle of the bible belt.

    I was privileged to help with planning my Dad’s funeral this past May. In thinking through who would be there and what Dad (a faithful believer for many years) would want them to hear, not only about his life but about his Lord, I came to many similar conclusions as Pastor Wilson. While the area is definitely not ‘new-age-y’, it is very much an area where there is an assumed gospel, and people apparently get to heaven because they are ‘good-ole-boys’ and deserve to be there.

    Even in the buckle of the bible belt, the gospel needs to be (and was, in Dad’s case) front and center at both the funeral service and in discussions with lost family members and friends.

  • Matt Fletcher

    Great counsel and insight. Thank you for sharing. My practice for such funerals have mirrored your own. As one who pastored in New England for 12 years, I can well relate to your ministerial context. Thank you again for jotting these things down, as they will be of tremendous benefit to other pastoral colleagues, particularly those ministering in New England.

  • Mike Warren

    As an ‘old Englander’ – a vicar in the Church of England – I have taken hundreds of funerals for people who never publicly professed faith Christ, and am encouraged that what I’ve been trying to do for 17 years is very similar to what you outline here.
    One thing I do not do is write any kind of eulogy – I always encourage a family member or friend to speak about the deceased, or, of they’re unwilling, I ask them to write the eulogy and I read it acknowledging the author(s) so that everyone knows whose words they are. This comes from being at the funeral of one of my wife’s relatives where the minister clearly hadn’t really known the deceased, and seemed to be speaking about a completely different person – not something I ever want to do!

  • paul

    this is a great and insightful post.
    thank you!

  • Aaron Sellars

    Great insight. You should do another post on leading a non-believer’s wedding. Would love your thoughts on that too.

    • Jared Wilson

      Aaron, my understanding is that TGC is planning a piece on that subject, but someone else will be writing it.

      My personal policy is not to officiate a wedding involving an unbeliever. I will do premarital counseling with them during which I will share the gospel. But if there is no credible profession of faith from both parties at some point in that process, I won’t marry them. My view of the marital covenant by conscience precludes it. But I know other pastors with a different take, and I respect that.

      • Henry

        Very helpful post thankyou,

        With respect to your comment about wedding an unbeliever, would you attend a wedding celebration between unbelievers? Or, would you attend a wedding celebration between an unbeliever and a believer? What is the unbeliever was your brother, and he has asked you to give the best man’s speech? I ask this because I am in that situation,


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  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “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.”

    Thanks for sharing this.

    In preparation for the possible rare event whereby someone (a presumed unbeliever) did ask you, “Pastor Jared, is my loved one (an unbeliever as best as you can discern) in Heaven?”

    what would you think you’d say?

    • Jared Wilson

      TUAD, some variation, depending on the flavor of the question, of this:

      I can’t say for certain where your loved one is, because only God knows that for sure, but I can say what the Bible says, which is that anyone who dies not having placed saving faith in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life will spend eternity under God’s punishment. Let’s pray together that your loved one had this faith at some point before his final breath.

  • Ben

    Very very helpful article. This is exactly the kind of thing I like to find on this website. Articles from pastors that deal with real issues and how they have dealt with them is exponentially more helpful than so many other things I might read.

    Thank you,

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Pastor Jared, et al,

    Has anyone ever had an unbeliever, or heard of and seen an unbeliever, come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as a result of attending a funeral service in which the particular presiding minister gave a brief Gospel message/invitation?

    • Jared Wilson

      TUAD, I have not had anyone profess faith as a result of any funeral I’ve preached, so far as I know, but I have had a couple of people begin attending my church in the last year after first meeting me at a funeral for whom I’m hopeful. One is the widow of a man who was being mourned.

      Have I heard of it happening? Yes. Most recently a few weeks ago at a funeral for a prominent Christian leader in New Hampshire.

      • Jared Wilson

        And I suppose I should mention that one dying woman was led to faith by her sister-in-law and myself while cancer ravaged her body. That was one funeral I was able to preach with reasonable confidence of the departed’s eternal destiny.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        Thanks Jared very much.

        Your post and thread comments are really quite helpful.

    • James Montgomery

      I have.. though I rarely give an invitation at a funeral I was overwhelmed that I should. So after I spoke I asked the those gathered would bow their head and pray with me that all those present would know and be known by the Lord as this dear saint was. As we were praying I asked quietly that if anyone is unsure and would like me to pray with and for them please raise their eyes toward me. I had at least one young woman lift her head and look me in the face and shook her head. I followed up with her afterwards.

  • Brad

    Incredible article! I am 22 and have already had to do a funeral for an unbeliever. It was one of the most difficult things I have had to do. Thank you for your wisdom as I am sure, unfortunately, to be doing more in the future.

  • Dan Smith

    I’m fascinated by this issue, even if a bit frightened. I’ve been a part of two funerals, both for believers, so the issue hasn’t become my “problem” yet, which is why I’m grateful for this article. I volunteer some Sundays preaching at a local hospital where I know many are going to hell, to be frank. I keep thinking, even if I can get through to one it will be better. However, I’ve never had to think about preaching after the fact. Very interesting thoughts, and I thank you.

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  • Rodrigo Lopez

    Jared thank you very much for taking the time to think, type and share this amazing post. It opened my understanding about how to handle a situation like this, also helped me to remember that our life is short and we need to be ready to go with the Lord.

    I found this very encouraing too: “throwing myself onto the sovereignty of God who will use his gospel to spiritually awaken his children to desire his Son.”

    Thanks, God bless you.

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  • Bo

    This is a timely article, as I am preaching a funeral today for someone I did not know. I have preached several funerals, and I agree with your assessment. Yet, it is nice to be reminded.

    I would appreciate your prayers today. The funeral is at 1:00 Central.

  • MatthewS

    I appreciate this very much. Thank you.

    I have found some of the service suggestions over at to be helpful for both weddings and funerals. I think most of them apply most easily for believers rather than unbelievers though.

    I have only done a couple funerals. I was instructed early on to plan the service in conjunction with family’s meeting at the funeral home. But I really like the suggestion of meeting separately with the family on their own turf at a separate time (but would still want to be there when the family meets with the funeral home as well). I try to hang onto every memory the family shares at meetings like that (I take notes) and reflect those things back during the service. A sentence here and there about how generous the person was such as the time they did this and that, or how they just really loved their yellow roses in their rose bed, or how they had been so helpful to a local organization – those things help the family feel that their loved one’s life has been recognized and honored.

  • Matt Gladd


    Thank you for your post. I grew up near Wichita, Kansas, but have nearly completed my first year serving as full-time pastor of a small, old, historic church in Maine. I had to preach a funeral service shortly after I began serving as pastor for someone who never attended the church, was in the process of dying long before I arrived, and recently professed faith in Jesus Christ after just a few meetings with him. It was nerve racking preaching at my first funeral, but I only had to preach for a graveside service. It was truly an ‘educational’ experience for me. The funeral home guy was very upbeat and positive and energetic, which seemed out of step with the occasion. Then, I sensed an awkwardness among many attending because it is New England and many do not have a high opinion of Christianity. I focused on speaking a bit on the life of the man who died and my own experience of meeting with him to talk about faith, and his profession of faith near the end of his life. However, I focused primarily on speaking on a couple passages of Scripture and communicating clearly the Gospel while being careful with the occasion in which I was preaching. I found that after many approached me and found great comfort in what I said. Many approached me at the reception that they really had “a lot to think about and consider” after hearing my message and enjoyed it. I even had one gracious theological conversation with someone who wanted to find where I stood on a couple issues. I heard several weeks later that people who do not come to church still thought very highly of my message and were considering coming to church for the first time in their lives (or for a long time). Nobody really did attend afterward, though the widow which I spent a great deal of time caring for has since become more active in the church even in her old age and her daughter has been attending as well and has asked to learn more about Jesus.

    On another occasion, on my day off, I received a call from the local police department telling me one of my “parishioners” had died and the father has requested prayer. I asked who and was given the name of someone I had never heard of before and wasn’t in the directory. I didn’t hesitate though, I quickly changed my attire and went to the address I was given. Upon arriving, I found that the body of the son was still there in the living room with a blanket over him, and the father was wanting me to offer last rites which is a Catholic tradition. I provided a brief reading from The Book of Common Prayer, then, offered to pray. In the prayer, I was very intentional in praying for the comfort of the father as well as for his salvation as I learned he was not a believer. After, the father gave me a hug, and I lingered a bit being near the father and some other family. I didn’t speak much, unless I was spoken to, and I found that my presence was most welcome. The father did, in typical New England fashion, ask me before I left, “So, you really into that whole religion thing and God-stuff?” It was a reminder of the environment that I am in, but also and I hope, perhaps a clue that my seriousness, presence, and love in my brief meeting might be causing him to reflect upon the reality of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In reflecting on this, looking back, I am reminded of how important it truly is to be ready in season and out of season, and to be prepared to give an answer to all who may ask. Also, sometimes, the answers others really seek are our presence and how we act, not necessarily giving all the correct verbal answers.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Hi Jared,

    I recently came across the following by Pastor Stephen Furtick:

    “We just had a funeral for a 17-year-old boy. They asked me if I would preach his funeral. When I gave his message, I pleaded with the people. There are hundreds of people who need to hear the gospel. My theology says God will save them if they confess and believe. I asked the family if I could ask people to raise their hand to give their hand to Christ. I slowed down, because you have to be careful that people don’t answer from emotion. When people raised their hands, I could tell the family, Riley’s life was not in vain. I’m not saying that everyone who raised their hands necessarily gave their hearts to Christ. But I’m going to err on the side of asking people to respond.”

    From: HERE.

    What do you think of this approach?

  • Tommy Begravelse

    This is a very insightful and usable post.


  • C Whitla

    Thought provoking post. It is such a difficult path that Ministers of God’s Word tread. While it is indeed loving to provide “comfort” to those who remain with us, it is not loving to preach “Peace! Peace! When there is no peace”. The full Gospel should be preached clearly and courageously. Indeed, we do not know whether there was a death-bed conversion or not, and God alone knows His children, but those who remain need to know whether they are facing heaven or hell.

    Finally, Christians (including Ministers, but not just Ministers) need to love the unbeliever long before they die. Only then can we have some assurance or otherwise regarding the state of their eternal soul. We should stop settling for meeting complete strangers at the time when a loved one dies. Most people arrange religious funerals because it’s the “done thing” culturally, although that is changing rapidly. It is very true that most people believe that if you are a relatively good person (and someitmes even if you were not) you will still go to Heaven because God is love and Christ forgives everyone – doesn’t he? It is here that we are failing the people under our care. We are failing to truly love them. Love isn’t just comfort it is also truth, and sacrifice.

    Thank you for this article, and for the discussion it has sparked.

  • Pastor Wayne Kurtycz

    Dang Jared ….! :-) I’ve been doing so many funerals through the years I didn’t have time to complete a book about it all. You & I should colaborate on the next book “It Happened at a Funeral” – subtitled “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!” We can follow that up with a serious book entitled: “Stories of Life Change From the Memorial Service.” Jared the info you shared made me smile.
    This is the stuff many Pastoral Staff types want to pass off only to pass up ambush God moments. Countless times I have walked into a situation where a member of our church had no attending family members. It’s humbling to walk into a funeral home to meet with a family that has to you – “our loved one really liked your church – but – the rest of us aren’t into God but we knew he would want you. They typically there is a weird tension in the room. But that’s when you ought to be prayed up & ready to allow Christ to shine through you. That ultimately happens when you show that you genuinely care & love the disceased love ones by your humility. My goal is to let the Lord use me & I explain to the family that my heart is to serve them & make this service a very personal celebration of there life. It is amazing to see the Lord break down the walls.
    To add to the discussion of “what do you share during a service when you are as certain as humanly possible that the disceased were not Christ Followers” – for me – really – its not much different than where the message goes when I am as certain as humanly possible that the person was a Christ Follower. The point of the message is the source of our only hope – Jesus Christ.
    After making sure that We have clearly celebrated the life memories & shared stories of a disceased loved one – as I move into the mesage – I connect to and will say something like this: “If the loved one could speak right now – they would want to tell you many things – that they love you – often I have built enough of a relationship with the family where I can use humor in this sentiment. Like saying that the love one would say something funny to a particular story that was shared or family member. After this I will repeat the words “If the loved one could speak to you they would want you to listen to the amazing Words of Hope expressed through the authority of God’s Word – written over 1500 years – 3 different continents – by 40 authors that God used to speak what should be our great take away – that God loves you with an eternal love as He loved your loved one – God did that by dying in our place – He understands this sorrow but gives us the promise of hope through this ultimate act of love. You know the rest – the relevant Scriptures. In the opportunities the Lord has allowed me to be a part of – this approach has always worked. I add that we’re all born the same – that our natures were exposed by the behavior of our grandparents in Genesis 3. That God never intended for us to be here – in a funeral home or having to say good bye to a loved one – God never intended us to be here to talk about heaven – but I am so thankful to God We can – and it’s only by His love we can know His Hope & that’s what your loved one would want me to celebrate with you. I ask God to melt the hearts of the most educated atheist to the most hardened religious person.
    I will share stories on how God broke through the stubborn intellect of a man like CS Lewis – and broke through a heart like mine who was once a skeptic who had such a distain against religion & God’s Word taught me about God’s love – that His love for me as His love is for each of us is so intense – we can’t really comprehend its magnitude but we can embrace the Grace He freely offers – and did so by a price that only He could have paid.
    To all who are blessed to serve our Lord this way – Yea God Yea You! Thanks for your heart Jared!

  • Lara

    Thank you – wise article.
    This is insightful for all who minister in Jesus’ name. We can ‘let God be God’ and show compassion and empathy (or sympathy, if the case may be) in someone else’s grief.

  • Merks

    Thank you Jared. I found this article at just the right time, before I speak tonight at a funeral. I do believe that Holy Spirit will do the follow up for me. Thanks for the honest thoughts!

  • Keith

    Good thoughts. Thanks!

  • brad

    Thanks for your advice. Proclamation trumps Presumption is great advice to live by, even beyond the funeral. Blessings.