It's a really tough job to do your part in a funeral. One of worst case scenario is when you have not personally known the deceased. Remember, there are two events where the families will never forget a mistake; a wedding and a funeral. I heard of one pastor who used the same script for every wedding. He actually introduced the newly married couple by using the previous couple's names. Likewise at a funeral, you want to make absolutely sure of the pronunciation of all family members' names.
When you receive the news that the family would like for you to perform the funeral, don't panic. Well, maybe it'll be okay to panic just a little. If you wouldn't get nervous about that kind of responsibility, in my opinion, you've got a serious problem. Those pastors who don't stress a little or who take a funeral lightly are probably the same pastors who give others in the profession a bad name. Hopefully, you're one of those who takes your duty to perform a funeral seriously.
AT THE FUNERAL HOME BEFORE THE FUNERAL
First, you'll set up a time when you can meet with the family as a group. Usually, this will most easily be accomplished at the funeral home prior to or after visitation hours.
Your goal in that meeting will be to learn as much as you can about the deceased. As a side note here, the following suggestions are for every funeral. Whether you knew the deceased or not, just be honest and tell the family that they knew their loved one much better than you and you'd like to learn more.
Some suggested questions as you take notes: Did the loved one have a favorite Bible passage? If they had a Bible, could you borrow it and give it back at the funeral? In this way you'll be able to see any notes or markings that can help lead you in your funeral remarks.
Ask various family members to tell you something about the person that will give you an idea of the various facets of their loved one's personality. I've had some very moving moments with family members as they described stories or sayings of their loved ones. As they talk, you should be taking notes, getting clarification, or asking leading questions that encourage more stories. I've had family members say how they wished they had taken the time to have a meeting like this where they recounted stories about people they loved at other times.
You'll be using nearly all this information in your remarks at the funeral. When things are beginning to wrap up, ask some of the more immediate family members present, for example, a spouse or child, if there is anything in particular that they would like for you to say about the deceased. Also, ask if they have arranged for someone to provide music or singing in the services. Is there a family member who would be willing to read the obituary? Have they spoken with the funeral director about what hymns they would prefer played during or before the service? Are there any other people they would like to have participate in the services? If they do, you may suggest parts of the service where they could help. For example; reading a favorite Scripture, reading a special poem, or introducing a singer. Conclude this meeting with a prayer for the family to have the strength to say farewell tomorrow.
AFTER YOUR VISIT WITH THE FAMILY
With what's left of the evening and the next morning, you'll prepare your remarks. This is not the time for a forty minute sermon. Most funeral sermons should be around ten to fifteen minutes. You'll also be busy with putting together a printed copy of the program you've planned for the services. Run off several copies to be used by the funeral home director, the organist, the singers, and other participants in the service so they will be well informed about their duties and when they come on the program during the service. The other writing you'll be doing is for your remarks at the graveside. These should be very short, but well prepared. I like to use some Scripture from Revelation regarding the end of death and the eternity of peace to come.
THE DAY OF THE FUNERAL
On the day of the funeral, upon arriving at the funeral home, let the parking attendant know that you are performing the services. You will be directed either to park your car in the processional ahead of the hearse or you'll be asked if you would like to ride with an attendant in the hearse. By taking your own vehicle, you'll be able to leave the cemetery at your own convenience. Knowing this, you'll want to make sure you're not embarrassed by arriving in a car needing a wash and wax job.
ARRIVING AT THE FUNERAL HOME
As you enter the funeral home, present yourself to the director, Ask if there is a room you might use in order to prepare yourself for the service. Also, ask if it would be possible to let you know a few minutes before the service is to begin so you could meet with everyone involved with the service to present them with a program. Give the director a few copies of the program and ask if he/she has any questions. You'd perhaps be surprised by how many times I've had the funeral director act stunned by my printed program. Evidently, many pastors just show up and wing it. This causes the director confusion and lends to an unprofessional service in which mistakes are more easily made. Ask if there are any questions. Have you included everything the family wanted? Is the director aware of any other request that you may have overlooked? This is the time to get it right. Check and recheck.
Meet with everyone on the program that the funeral director has assembled prior to start time. At the beginning of the service, the director will escort the participating party into the chapel. You, as the speaker will be assigned a particular chair. You should follow the program on your copy very carefully.
Some people won't move until you give them a nod or whisper that it's their time to speak. It can be a little overwhelming, but as the leader in the services, the others will be looking for guidance from you.
AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE SERVICE
At the conclusion of the service, you'll take your position at the head of the coffin or beside the urn as visitors and family pay last respects. You'll remain at that position until the funeral director dismisses all the attendees. When the casket is moved, you should lead the way to the hearse. Step aside when the pall bearers prepare to insert the casket into the hearse.
AT THE GRAVE SIDE
The director will probably escort you to your car in line or introduce you to the attendant who'll be driving the hearse. Upon arrival at the cemetery, you'll quickly move to the back of the hearse in order to escort the casket to the site. Once there, you'll step aside while the casket is put in place for the service. Keep your eye on the director. You'll get a nod when all is ready. Step to the head of the casket where you'll deliver your remarks. The conclusion of your part of the ceremony should end with a prayer. You'll then go shake hands and offer condolences to the family who has been seated on the front chairs set up by the grave side.
Step aside. The director will take it from here. Stay around for a few minutes in case anyone wants to make comments to you, but make your way to your car. Congratulations. You've just completed your first funeral service.