Is preaching at funerals a bizarre tradition?

Photo by Tracie Bonjour

My friend Caleb is a funeral director and a writer and he’s just  posted a hot topic of discussion  regarding whether or not pastors should preach a gospel message or salvation message at funerals; namely, eternity is upon the departed so get your own life right in God’s eyes. Right now the topic of where people will spend eternity is huge considering Rob Bell’s new book, that I have not yet read, Love Wins. Boy, this poor guy is being slammed out of the evangelical window right now for some of his comments in the book regarding hell and whether or not a loving God creates an everlasting hole of perpetual torment for ‘unbelievers’. If you ask me this sounds more like a night out at Denny’s. With this in mind I do think it’s timely that Caleb posted his thoughts on preaching salvation at funerals since eternity and whether or not hell is for the heathen is such a huge discussion point.

I’ve been to funerals that were heartbreaking but precious as we all grieved the loss of another life. Then I’ve been to funerals where I kept wondering who this stranger of the departed is and why he’s saying the stuff he’s saying. I know a lot depends on what the family wants to be said, the same is true at weddings. I’ve even been to a few weddings where the couple actually wanted the unbelieving family members to know that time is a-tickin’ and they better take stock of their lives soon. Then we all had cake with butter creme frosting and boogied to Michael Jackson songs. Mazel Tov!

I personally believe that death is an intriguing part of the human experience and that we as Westerners seem to want death to be wrapped in a tidy bow for a variety of reasons that I don’t fully understand yet. Maybe grieving families want the attenders to know there is a heaven and a hell and that, as we face the death of a loved one, we need to keep our own vulnerability in front of us. Maybe we hand the keys (so to speak) over to our pastor to officiate the service because this is the role of the pastor in our church; a leader, a shepherd, a guide to the flock, anointed to bring a gospel message, one who orates better than the rest of us?

I guess at the heart of it I find preaching salvation at a funeral to be in poor taste considering death is such a huge loss for people to walk through as it is. I believe death has its beauty and also has the potential to draw out the strength and connectedness in an entire community so, in my opinion, when you have a pastor in front preaching about heaven and hell you lose this dynamic element of mourning that a community needs to experience in order to move forward. In this case someone’s death has become a platform to deliver another Sunday service message and a funeral isn’t that, it’s much more exceptional than a church service.  I guess it can serve as a gauge in reminding us of our own brevity in a short life but, in general, as far as the amazing event of a funeral goes, I think the preaching is better left for Sunday morning. And again, by preaching I mean letting the participants know “there is eternity and we will spend it somewhere so where will you spend it?” end quote

Could it be that preaching a message of salvation at a funeral, by the pastor, is a tradition that not too many people question these days; sort like wearing black at a funeral or wearing white at a wedding, or shaking a stick at a witch under a full moon (ok, that last one is just made up)?  Does preaching belong at an event as profound as a funeral?

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2 thoughts on “Is preaching at funerals a bizarre tradition?

  1. it always sort of hurts my heart to hear hell and damnation at the service of someone who has died. who is that preach for? it serves to separate and divide, at a time where all are joined in grief and prayer… maybe if it were the language of the church i was raised in it wouldn’t be so hard to handle, though… maybe its just being an outsider at a time like that?

    • I so agree. I’ve been to more funerals, over the past few years, than I think anyone should have to attend. Some were even funerals of friends whose babies died and I was just blessed beyond words at how much the community came together to support, encourage and, very importantly, grieve with the parents. Whether someone is preaching ‘turn or burn’ or they are preaching ‘it’s all fine now b/c they are in heaven’, I still think dying and the event of a funeral are odd places to bring out one’s exegesis on eternity.

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