I was contacted last week by a pastor asking this question and thought there might be others asking it also. The most helpful advice I ever received about preaching at a funeral for someone I didn’t know is: “Don’t preach them into heaven. Don’t preach them into hell. Just preach the gospel for the people who are there.” This principle captures our task regardless of the kind of funeral we do. Ironically, though we focus on remembering and celebrating the life of the deceased, the funeral service is ultimately for those who attend.
The sermon is where the gospel must be preached clearly. Only when we can personally have confidence in a person’s conversion should we feel comfortable to speak of the heavenly reward he/she has now received. If there is any doubt in your mind, it is best to focus on the gospel for your hearers and resist the temptation to provide a false comfort that you have little or no basis to give.
A funeral sermon should not exceed 20 minutes and should highlight these three categories, preferably expounded from a text(s) of Scripture:
1) Acknowledge the need to grieve.
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11) is particularly helpful as there seems to be a legitimate time of grieving for those present and sorrow for those who are experiencing the separation that death brings, including Jesus who wept (John 11:35). I often share of the time my father sat my wife and me down, once we found out we had miscarried with our second child, and exhorted us to take time to grieve over this child, instructing us how to do so.
Don’t ever presume that people realize that grief is appropriate or that they know how to work through their grief by simply talking about their deceased loved one. In actuality, many do not want to talk about them because of the hurt felt in loss. Many pastors know that often, years later, people learn the value of this process, eventually working through the grief with some pastoral guidance.