Avoiding the Out-of-Control Funeral

It was well over an hour into the funeral. The memorial service, as we called them, was being held in our church. I would be giving the funeral message, and I was hoping to do it before midnight. But it was not looking good.

I was being victimized a dreaded beast: the Open Mic.

I don’t know who had this idea and why it caught on in our churches, but somehow it began to appear in more and more funerals, usually to no one’s benefit. (In fact, there’s a little-known quote from around the 5th century that says, “Ain’t nothin’ good came from an open mic.” I’m unable to find the source, but you can take my word for it, ok?)

A friend of the deceased was waxing eloquent. But not about the deceased. She was telling stories that largely revolved around herself. I remember walking across the back of the auditorium to where the funeral director was sitting and telling him, “Joe, two things: if you’re still doing this when I die, I want you to care for my funeral. And if anyone in my family says they want an open mic, tell them I said absolutely not.”

See, I have a love/hate relationship with the open mic. I don’t love it. I do hate it.

Now lest you think I’ve popped a gasket, let me explain.

I wanted a funeral to accomplish three things: appropriately honor the deceased, bring comfort to the family and friends, and preach Christ.

The first two depend on a variety of factors relating to the spiritual lives of the family and their loved one. After all, if the person who had died was not a believer, and/or the family are not believers, there’s not a great deal of comfort to give. But the third was always possible. A funeral was a great opportunity to explain the Gospel, and I was always grateful for the opportunity.

Since we don’t have a procedure for conducting a funeral laid out for us in the New Testament, there would seem to be some latitude for what we do when we gather to remember someone who has died. So this is what I came up with, and it served me well.

My goal was to keep the service to between 30 and 45 minutes.

The grieving family may not think of this, but people who come to funerals or memorial services often drive a distance, take off from work, or give of their time in some other way. That sacrifice should be respected. People may care deeply for the family, but it’s easy to spot when an audience starts to get restless.

If the family wanted people to give a word of remembrance, I asked them to choose the speakers, asked that there be 3 or 4 at the most, that they keep their comments to 3 or 4 minutes, and that those who spoke would write out their words beforehand.

You can’t control what people say or how long they speak, but I found by asking those who would take part to follow those guidelines we kept the service length under control and people felt better being prepared as opposed to getting up and trying to wing it. I honestly can’t remember anyone getting bent out of shape over this.

In addition, if the deceased was a believer from a Christian family, the family could choose people who would support what was I would say later in my message.

Ban the Open Mic!!

Be strong and courageous!

How often I wished for one of these . . .
How often I wished for one of these . . .

Seriously, why do I make such a big deal about this? A lot of families may think it’s a wonderful idea.

If I was speaking at the funeral of someone who was not a believer (I occasionally was asked to do the service of someone from outside of our church), I explained that people tend to wander when they speak off-the-cuff. I suggested that they ask a couple of people to speak who would be prepared. I also reminded them that the cemetery was expecting us at a certain time and that we didn’t want to incur an extra charge. Those explanations always were accepted.

If I was speaking at the funeral of someone from a Christian family, I would explain that having an open mic made it very possible that someone would say something that could undercut the Gospel message that the family wanted me to bring. That, and the factors mentioned above, were usually accepted without objection.

(By the way, I never worked with a funeral director who thought the open mic was a good idea.)

If you feel you’d get some push-back or because of your youth be viewed as autocratic, ask your Elders to develop a policy on this.

Do your best to be the last person who speaks.

I began each service by reading the basic biographical facts of the deceased: birth date and place, death date and place, surviving relative, etc. Then I continued with Scripture and prayer. When it came time to speak I spoke briefly about the deceased. Where honor could be paid, I did that. Where there was a question about their relationship with the Lord my comments tended to be biographical. I never spoke as if the person was in heaven unless I was sure they were true followers of Christ. Then I read another portion of Scripture and presented the Gospel. I spoke for 15-20 minutes. If I knew the testimony of the deceased, I’d work that into my comments.

Last words are generally the ones most remembered. You don’t want to have presented the Gospel and the urgency of putting faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, only to have some well-meaning guy get up and say, “Well, I used to bowl with Harry every Friday night and I can tell you that right now he’s probably up there bowling with the angels.” Or (and I’ve heard this) “Bill was quite a character. I will miss him, but knowing Bill he’s probably got heaven in an uproar right about now.”

What are people going to remember if that’s what they hear?

There is usually a meal or refreshments after the service. Invite people who had special memories or stories about the deceased to tell them to the family at this gathering. I never did this, but in retrospect I think it would have been a good idea.

This is the most appropriate time for people to tell their stories. It respects the time of the guests, it allows people who have something to say to say it, and it doesn’t provide an opportunity – at least during the service – to contradict the Gospel.

I’ve often been asked by younger pastors or other people in ministry who have little opportunity to conduct a funeral what they should do. Again, this is an opinion, but it’s worked for me, and I think it would work for you, too.

If you have suggestions you’d like to add, go ahead and put them in the comment section at the end of this post. Comments are moderated, but I try to get to them the same day they are posted. Let’s learn from each other!

Author: Peter Bogert

Married to Laura, with three adult children, 7 grandchildren. I’m an avid baseball fan, and I enjoy listening to audiobooks about military history, and reading Theology. I was ordained a Baptist pastor and served two churches over a 41 year period. After a three year hiatus I'm glad to be serving at Calvary Bible Fellowship Church in Coopersburg, PA. And I’m glad you stopped by!

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