5 Things You Should Never Say or Do at a Funeral

Nothing makes me shrink back from holy ambition and the good fight of ministry like preaching a funeral. I wrestle for days and nights on not only what to say but also how to say it. If I’m enjoying an encouraging season of life, I struggle to enter into the suffering of the grieving. Who am I to represent the feelings of the hurting family as they watch me attempt to honor their loved one? But much changed for me when I preached my dad’s funeral last August. God gave me the insight of not just the preacher but also the family member.

This moment is never casual or easy. It takes much courage and help from the Holy Spirit. As we ask for God’s help in prayer, we must not be careless with any of our words. What we say is powerful in such a vulnerable situation, and we should tread carefully. So here are five things we must avoid when preaching a funeral.

1. Do not refer to the departed saint only in the past tense.

Part of our duty as the preacher is to honor the Lord by talking about how this child of God loved Jesus and gave his or her life for his glory. However, too many times we can carelessly speak of the person in past tense. If we believe the deceased is alive in Christ and in his presence, we must refer to him or her also in present and future tense. In this way we remind family and other listeners of the hope of the gospel.

2. Do not forget God’s perspective.

We’re taught in Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” God is glorified when his children come home. Being in the unveiled presence of God is the highest joy a believer can ever receive. It is the end of the long struggle of sanctification and the beautiful beginnings of glorification.

3. Do not ignore the lost.

The lost are always around us. They may not lie in the casket, but they are dead in their sins. The lost need to be reminded that death is a reality of life, a transition we will all make one day. If there is any place for preaching the seriousness of sin and the grace of Christ, it is when preaching over the body of a saint into the eyes of the lost. Plead with them to repent and enjoy eternal life with the Savior. The honored saint is more alive than anyone can ever imagine.

4. Do not say or imply the deceased was perfect.

Real people are encouraged to hear about real life. And real life is full of both joys and sorrows. The honored saint has finished the race and fought the good fight of faith. We can learn from the life of anyone united with Christ.

5. Do not leave out the reality of heaven—expound on it.

The church needs to keep hearing and studying from God’s Word about our future home. Lack of talk about heaven reveals our lack of faith, hope, and joy in it. This dearly departed child of God now enjoys God and the riches of his kingdom. For at least a few moments we can pull people out of their “here and now” perspective that shrinks the joy set before them in Christ. Remind them that Christians are always surrounded by grace and have nothing but heaven in front of them.

  • Trevor Minyard

    This is a dope article. TGC, we need more of these practical articles. Salute to Josh on this one.

  • Mickey

    4 is pandemic.

  • Darren Blair

    In regards to #4 –

    A possible corollary for this one would be “Resist the urge to turn the funeral into a sermon.”

    A few years ago, a friend of mine passed away suddenly. For his service, his family retained a minister who they had known for some time before the military reassigned the family from their previous base to the base down here.

    At the time of his passing, my friend was going through an “agnostic” phase in that, while he still believed in God, he was no longer entirely certain about the denomination in which he grew up and so was actively attempting to study different denominations and faith traditions in an effort to learn more and find what he felt to be a more appropriate spiritual home.

    My friend was a natural actor, and so was forever doing jokes and impersonations. He also had a number of “nerd” hobbies like role-playing games and table-top games, and in fact we were part of the same gaming group at the time. He was a kind-hearted person, and did wonders with children. He was also contemplating running for the city council when he got his finances in order (he had some debts left to pay off due to college and his house) as he felt inspired to make some changes.

    The pastor, however, portrayed him as a staunch defender of the faith who worked miracles when not producing profound writings. My friend’s avid participation in the local hobbyist community was largely glossed over, with the minister mispronouncing the one game that he did mention; my friend’s sense of humor and local ambitions were also not referenced. In their place the pastor tried to insert a “Come to Jesus!” message and some letters from some of the kids my friend had worked with.

    Although the minister was likely working from memories of my friend from when he was younger, the disconnect between what those of us who knew him actually knew and the way the minister portrayed him was stark enough to where there was confusion and hurt feelings; the “sermon” bit was the final straw, resulting in some mourners who were not active in any particular faith tradition being completely turned off.

  • Travis

    #1 and #2 assumes one is speaking at a believer’s funeral. What insight would you give if you were speaking at a non-believer’s funeral?

  • http://majorhillman.com Major Hillman

    I wonder what are the do’s and dont’s of preaching at an unbelievers funeral.

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      This article may help. Thanks for reading!

  • Jeffrey

    Josh, Thank you for a very helpful article. I would also remind pastors to make sure they refer to the firstfruit bodily resurrection of our Savior and therefore the subsequent resurrection of the deceased (assuming he/she is in Christ. Being in the unveiled presence of God in a resurrected body that is immortal and imperishable is indeed the highest joy of the believer.Then and only then can we declare the deceased to be authentically human. I have been to more funerals than I care to remember where the word resurrection is never even mentioned.

  • Dave

    “Remind them that Christians are always surrounded by grace and have nothing but heaven in front of them.”

    I hope this doesn’t seem pendantic, but it’s not correct that those who die in the Lord have ‘nothing but heaven in front of them’. That’s the intermediate state. The eternal state for all believers includes a glorious resurrection body and dwelling in a new heavens and new earth, the home of righteousness.

    That’s the ultimate hope that Scripture comforts believers with when a loved one who knew the Lord has died, e.g. 1 Thess 4:13-18, 2 Peter 3:13, Rev 21:1-4, 1 Cor 15:1-58.

    I’m sure the author of this article knows full well that the intermediate state is not the eternal state, but we shouldn’t assume everyone we talk to or interact with knows that there is a difference. The hope of the Gospel is firmly in the resurrection. That is, after all, Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 15.

  • Brodie Smith

    Another specific thing NOT to say is: “Glad you’re here” to anyone in the deceased family. Or really to anyone at a funeral. But maybe I’m just a tad bitter and need to let that one go after my mother’s passing and funeral.

  • John Pond


    Great point, and for me the graveside service is the place where I have talked about the resurrection, as the burial is a temporary place for the body.

    I also liked what Darren pointed out previously..”Resist turning it into a sermon..” For me, in the context of having a grieving person’s limited attention, I want to convey the reality of being in the presence of Christ for the saint that has passed. I say that because you are also right in saying that not everyone knows the difference between the 2 states, however I probably won’t throw that out in a funeral. In my limited experience, at a funeral people will only grab onto a few things and forget everything else I say – my opinion. So I want to keep it as simple as I can.

    • Dave

      I like the way you have the pastoral sensitivity to understand that a grieving person isn’t going to be able to take very much in. And it is right to emphasise that the saint that has passed is now in the presence of Christ, which is a more blessed state to be in than we can possibly imagine.

  • John

    I would say talk about the reality of resurrection as well. That seems to be ignored in almost all funerals I go to, yet it is fundamental to the Christian hope. There’s no better time to riff on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  • Rick Wilson

    As a Hospice Chaplain/Spiritual Counselor, I say Amen to this exhortation. What a honor it is to point people to the hope in Christ when all around them seems hopeless.

  • Pingback: Пять советов тем, кто проповедует на похоронах | NGNews()

  • Pingback: Ministry Monday | Three Passions()