In the last commentary, I argued that a Christian minister ought not to officiate at wedding ceremonies for unbelievers. These weddings, I argued, represent the trivialization of the Christian ministry and a loss of pastoral courage. Since then, I’ve received lots of queries about funerals. Should a Christian minister preach the funeral of an unbeliever? That’s a very good question.
Some of the saddest moments of my ministry have been in funeral homes, preaching for people I didn’t know. Early on in ministry, I became the “go to” minister for a local mortician when one of his deceased passed away with no religious affiliation. I’ve seen almost empty chapels, with no one to do the eulogy but me. And I’ve seen full chapels of family members who clearly hated the deceased. I had one deceased woman’s daughter tell me there was nothing positive she could think to say about her mother, nothing at all, except that she did feed the birds in her backyard.
Do I think it was biblically acceptable to preach those funerals? Yes. Would I do it again today? Yes.
A funeral is an entirely different matter than a wedding. A wedding is about the near future (near meaning the next thirty to seventy years or so). A funeral is about the past, and about the ultimate future (the resurrection from the dead). A wedding is the witnessing of vows, the calling together of a covenant between two persons. A funeral doesn’t call any reality together. It commits the body of the dead to the earth and awaits the resurrection of both the just and the unjust.
Having said that, I do think the funerals of unbelievers represent a test for pastoral courage, but in a very different way. Some ministers are tempted to become family chaplains in the funeral home just as in the wedding chapel, prattling on about Aunt Flossie walking on streets of gold when everyone knows Aunt Flossie was a militant atheist.
Courage doesn’t mean announcing the arrival of the deceased in hell. You don’t know that. I once heard an impressive sermon about how the thief on the cross’s family probably all died never knowing that he was redeemed. One simply doesn’t know the kind of plea for mercy that may be prayed out, perhaps even in the nanosecond before death.
Still, the funeral of an unbeliever ought to be a somber affair. The minister ought not to speculate on the destiny of the deceased (except in very rare and exceptional circumstances) but ought to proclaim the reality of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He ought to speak of the certainty of death, of the quickness of life, and of the horror of the judgment seat. And then he ought to offer Christ to every hearer, clearly explaining how to know Jesus.
In some ways, a Christian pastor is fulfilling the very essence of his calling when he preaches an unbeliever’s funeral. He is remembering in thanksgiving a life of one made in the image of God. He is there to intepret the reality that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).