Funerals are never easy. But the really hard ones have a way of sticking with you. They haunt you, forcing you to remember them with every other funeral that you attend.
One of the first funerals that I preached was for my mother. My friends and family seemed really worried about me. They had replacements lined up in case I fell apart at the last minute. But that never happened. I had a good mom who loved Jesus and was with him. That’s a pretty easy story to tell.
But the hard ones aren’t like that. The hard ones start out with a call from the funeral home. The funeral director will usually say a person’s name and ask if I knew him. I don’t but for one reason or another, I’ve been requested to perform the ceremony. The night before the funeral I meet the family for the first time. While I talk to them, I can see the body of their loved one, lying behind them. I wonder why I’m preaching this funeral. Where is the person’s pastor? Did they even have a pastor? Did they belong to a church? Did they belong to Jesus?
This really scares me. I know that church membership and even church commitment is not what saves us. But I also know that people who really love Jesus also love his church. They typically don’t have a stranger preaching their funeral.
On the day of the funeral I stand before the family. I can’t say anything about the person being in a better place or being free from suffering because I don’t know and I certainly don’t want to give any false assurances. Maybe they were saved at the last minute, like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. But maybe they weren’t.
Death has a way of making the vilest of people look like saints, especially in the south. We like to convince ourselves that the one we have lost is really in a better place. We don’t like to consider the fact that maybe they aren’t. In his new state, because of his failure to repent and believe in the gospel, the person I’m talking about is much worse than he ever was here on earth.
And so I can’t really talk about the person I was asked to talk about. I can’t lead a celebration of life. It’s more like a ceremony of doubt. All I can say for certain is that Jesus is Lord. The only comfort I can give the family is the promise of eternal life for them if they repent and believe in the gospel before it’s too late. But I just can’t be sure about the person whose funeral I’m performing. And that haunts me.
Shortly after I became a pastor I preached a funeral for a church member. This person loved Jesus, loved others and it showed. Aside from the pain of seeing the tears of loved ones, this was an easy funeral to preach. I could say with certainty that this person was in a better place, resting in the arms of Jesus. I could lead a celebration of life. The words of my sermon rolled off my tongue like classic literature.
When I was done someone I didn’t know too well came up to me with a request.
“Whenever I die, I want you to preach my funeral. And I want you to do just as good at my funeral as you did at this one.”
The more funerals I preach, the more I realize that that’s not up to me.
What made it easier to preach a funeral for my mother and people at my church? I think it’s because the hard work was already done. They spent their entire lives preaching their own funeral. And when their life ended, I was just there to add the Bible verses to an already beautiful sermon.