7 Tips for Preaching a Stranger’s Funeral

Someone in my church recently asked if I could preach the funeral of his uncle who passed away unexpectedly. The nephew was unsure of his spiritual condition and not hopeful that he follower Christ. In addition, this man was a complete stranger to me. I was faced with a difficult moment of truth and a number of questions.

Do I preach the funeral? If so, why and how? If I don’t, why not, and under what circumstances would I do so?

I offer the following seven suggestions from experience that I hope will help you in thinking through and ministering in this difficult and unique opportunity.

Before the Funeral

1. Decide whether or not you will participate before anyone asks you.

Though I have been in ministry nearly 15 years, this was actually the first time I faced this decision, and it was not easy. Because I did not know the deceased’s immediate family, I was concerned with a number of “could be” questions. Would they ask me to assure them he was with Jesus when I had no such confidence? Would they ask me to “preach him into heaven” during the service? I didn’t know.

But I did know that God had ordained this opportunity. I had the margin in my calendar to do so that week, and I knew I could preach the gospel to a large crowd who may never otherwise hear the good news. For these reasons and others, I decided to risk a few awkward moments.

2. Pray, pray and pray some more for all aspects of the process.

Though it wasn’t my first funeral, it was my first funeral like this. So many variables made me uncomfortable and forced me to depend upon Jesus. I began to realize all my concerns were ultimately about me—not faithfulness to Jesus. They made me pray. A lot. And this is a good thing for all of us–especially pastors. So I prayed like crazy for the family’s comfort, for wisdom in what to say and how to say it, for clear gospel proclamation, for those gathered to see Jesus, and for much more.

3. Gather information about the deceased.

Part of being faithful in these situations is being a good listener and learner about the deceased. For me, this happens with both my eyes and ears during the times I talk with the family or attend the wake. As you would expect, I spoke to the deceased’s wife a number of times before the service and asked her to tell me about her husband. I took notes. When I went to the wake, I also looked closely at the photo collages on display. Both of these practices, along with gleaning anecdotal stories along the way, allowed me to effectively prepare for the next step of the process–preaching the funeral message.

During the Service

4. Eulogize the deceased in light of the common grace God has given.

These settings allow us to reflect on the deceased and how he loved his friends, family, and neighbors by the common grace of God. In this particular case, I knew that the deceased’s family and friends could speak much more poignantly and helpfully on these aspects of his life than I could, so I was happy to let them do so. Otherwise I would have expanded this portion of my remarks. Instead, I simply opened my message by reading his obituary from the local newspaper, reiterated and referenced some of the stories that had just been told, and pointed to how God generously allowed us to experience all these things.

5. Minister to the family in their grief.

The funeral is for the living and not the dead. After eulogizing the deceased, my goal was to comfort the family. I shared Scriptures such as Revelation 21:1-5 and talked about how the world is broken and not as it should be and someday will be. I pointed to Psalm 9:9, Psalm 18:2, and Psalm 34:18 while encouraging them to seek the comfort that only God offers. I then turned to Ecclesiastes 3 as my main text and explained how this was a time to mourn (at his passing) and also laugh (at the stories they can tell) and that, most importantly, it was a time to seek–Jesus. This was my bridge to the gospel, and I encouraged them to trust Jesus and offered to talk to them at length any time.

6. Speak boldly about what you know and carefully about what you don’t.

As I said earlier, my greatest concern was that a family member would ask me to confer assurance of salvation on someone I had never even met. This didn’t happen. In fact, I think this is likely a “phantom fear.” Instead, I chose to not say anything at all about the spiritual standing of the deceased. It had already been determined, and there was nothing any of us could do now to change it. I only knew for sure than more than 200 people sitting before me were on their way to spend eternity somewhere, and it was my job to help them prepare.

After the Service

7. Follow up with the grieving family and trust God with the results.

About a week after the funeral I reached out to the family to say I was praying for them and wanted to serve them however I could. I’m not sure if they will ever call me back. But I know that God said when his Word goes out it will not return void (Isaiah 55:11). And, by God’s grace, the Word was preached, so I am trusting that he will cause it to bear whatever fruit he intends, whether I ever see it or not.

Since I am doing ministry in a fallen world, this won’t be my last funeral. It won’t be yours, either, so stay prepared. Your next call could come this afternoon.

Are you ready?

  • http://bridgetownbaptist.ca Pastor David Cumby

    Participated in a 3 part Pastor’s CE lecture series sponsored by Acadia Divinity College while I was a PT Pastor and M.Div. student. It featured Dr.Peter Holmes of Yorkminister Baptist Church on “Preaching Life (i.e.Gospel) into Death. Confirmed my view of the vital role of a Pastor in ALL funerals (like the situation described and spoken so well to here by Pastor Neeley), regardless of the evidenced faith or apparent lack of it in the life, influence or witness of the deceased. I never turn down the opportunity to minister at a funeral unless I am AWAY ON VACATION or VERY ILL!

  • Jeremy Tuinstra

    I have conducted around 10 memorial services in memory of people I did not know well. Your counsel is excellent! The bottom line for me is: “The funeral is for the living and not the dead.” The gospel is everything!

    I also bring a stack of Christian literature to give away to anyone who has questions about grief and the gospel. Two CCEF booklets are excellent for this purpose: Facing Death with Hope by David Powlison and Grief: Finding Hope Again by Paul David Tripp.

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  • Ted Wilson

    I pastor a “main-line” church that is coming out of and recovering from the apostasy of liberal theology. As a result, I have officiated at many funerals where I could not be certain of the deceased’s salvation.

    Contrary to Rev. Neeley’s experience, I have found, more often than not, the family very much wanting me to declare their loved one is now in heaven. For example, recently a wife of an unchurced man begged me saying, “Please tell me he is in heaven!” Because the thinking of many members of liberal churches and also many of those who are un-churched, tends to some form of universalism, the expressed or implied expectation if often that I, during the funeral, pronounce their loved one to be in heaven.

    So, I am coming under an increasing conviction to be more discriminating regarding which funerals I agree to officiate. As Christians, and especially as Pastors, isn’t the primary purpose of the funeral to proclaim and celebrate the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Isn’t the pinnacle of a Christian funeral that moment when we commend to God the soul of the deceased brother or sister? Shouldn’t that be the strongest testimony we can ever give for the Gospel?

    My fear is that when we can’t do that, because we don’t know the person who died, (or worse yet – the evidence indicates the person was not saved), and we as Christian Pastors do the service, we are effectively diluting the truth. I suspect that in the minds of many of the bereaved, when a Christian Pastor does a funeral, whether or not he actually says so, it is an indication that the person who died was a Christian. And all this does is cheapen grace.

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  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    Since the sermon at a funeral is not (or shouldn’t be, anyway) about the deceased…but about Christ and what He has done for sinners who need new life…the sermon should be the same for someone you know, as well as someone you do not know.

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  • Patrick Shealy

    Great post! In my experience, a funeral is a place where a minister can have a large impact on many people. I have preached an unbeliever’s or “unknown’s” funeral and later have had the opportunity to see family members of the deceased embrace Christ or pursue conversations about faith because of something I said either in the service or around that time. (And I only stated generalities about a believer and the afterlife. Things that are true)-God can prick the hardest of hearts.

  • Tommy G.

    I have on numerous occasions been asked to preach funerals for people who apparently have no religious affiliation. It always baffles me. If people are content to live their lives without Christ and his church, why would they want a Christian minister to speak at their funeral? And they call us hypocrites.

    When asked I always accept, but I am very uncomfortable with it.

  • Jean LeMahieu

    Almost all the funerals I did during 9 years of ministry in a small rural church were for “Strangers”. I always met with the family and came with a list of questions, including “What do you know about their spiritual beliefs?” I would share what I had been told about them, never giving assurance of salvation if I had doubts. In one situation one family member insisted their loved one was saved, the other sibling asked me not to give assurance, b/c they weren’t too sure about it themselves. I always eulogized the person based on what I had learned, always presented the gospel, and ministered Christ’s love to the family. I also would ask permission to pray with them and was never denied. Doing funerals for “strangers” is a wonderful way to share Christ. Jean LeMahieu

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  • http://www.southbaychurchli.org Martin Hawley

    Thanks for your article. It was very helpful. I most appreciated your comments in point 4.