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preaching at funerals – reuben munn

Earlier this year I officiated the funeral service of a young woman in our church who had committed suicide. She was in her 20s and had a young family—a husband, a 7-month old daughter and a 2-yr old son. After the birth of both her children she had severe post-natal depression, with the second time being much worse and more prolonged. In the darkness of her depression she took her own life. It’s about the most horrendous thing you can imagine happening to a family, and our whole church community felt the heavy weight of grief.

I usually give a short message at funerals, just a few minutes. I wanted to be open about the awfulness of what had happened, and not sugar-coat the circumstances of her death. But at the same time I wanted to bring out the reality that she had a genuine faith in Christ, even though she struggled to hold on to God near the end. I latched on to Romans 8:37-39 in the Message translation: “Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture. None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”

Once I had that Scripture in my head, the message came together around it. I described how this woman knew Jesus and because of that, he was with her through everything. Even the darkest days of her depression couldn’t separate her from the love of Christ. Even when she couldn’t hold onto God, he was holding onto her. Even death itself couldn’t separate her from Christ because he had already died for her. In death and life she was absolutely secure in the love of Jesus because of his death and resurrection. I tried to talk positively about where she now was—in heaven—without suggesting at all that her death itself was positive. That was a difficult tightrope to walk. But people seemed encouraged by the meshing of grief and hope in the service.

Thankfully not all funerals are that hard. They can be a great opportunity to preach ‘out of season,’ beyond a church context and into a space where there are invariably non-Christians present and people are thinking about life and death more than usual. Here are a few other things I’ve learned about preaching at funerals . . .

  1. Be specific about heaven. If the person is a Christian, don’t talk about them being in a ‘better place.’ Be confident about describing them at peace and rest in heaven.
  2. Talk about ‘life after life after death’ (Tom Wright). Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world. Talk also about the future resurrection, when we will all receive our new bodies together and enter God’s new creation.
  3. If the person is a non-Christian, you can still involve God. As long as the family is comfortable, it’s still good to pray at non-Christian funerals, to commit the person to God, and to encourage the family to find strength in Christ. Just be careful with your words so you don’t say something you don’t mean!

What would you advise for preaching at funerals?

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