Rev. D. E. Hickman
A minister performing a funeral has the rare opportunity to share the warmth of God with a family in grief. Providing a funeral service is one of the most solemn duties a minister will perform. It requires a great deal of preparation in order for the minister to give proper attention to a family during this time of grief. If the Minister knows the family, it is appropriate for the Minister to discuss with different member's things they would like to have mentioned during the service about the deceased. Usually, one of the family members or a close friend takes on the responsibility of planning the ceremony, and kind of service for the deceased.
Before we get to the service though, let's discuss an issue many Ministers seem uncomfortable with. What will your fee for providing this service be to the grieving family? A goodwill or love offering may seem fair, but are you to be paid for the way you dressed, or by the amount of words you use? This is the time right at the beginning to talk about your cost for services. Some Ministers prefer to have a cost sheet made out in advance explaining basic fees plus expenses they charge for. You need to understand that you are being compensated for your professional services, and not receiving taxable gifts of love. You will find out the hard way, that often after the service is done, the family no longer feels your services were as valuable as they were before the service.
Your time and knowledge has value, so start out on the right foot.
Your attention should be focused on the spiritual essence of God rather than the remains of the person. A short sermon based on beliefs of the family, and scriptures will help to fill this purpose. You need to highlight the life of the deceased, but move into the life after death to help lessen the families concerns for the departed.
Often, it is the case that as a UM minister, you are not the Pastor of the church where the funeral is held. Usually, the church Pastor will be the central figure in the service, and your place will be additional to the Pastor. So, most of the funeral you perform will be done at the funeral home or the graveside.
In today's world, there are many families that do not have a home church or family Minister to look to in times of need. Our function is to provide the services these folks need that many mainstream churches refuse when the deceased was not a member of their church. Too often churches and ministers forget their true calling is to God, and not the flock of only their church. Be proud of your calling, and your official authority to perform these needed services on behalf of your faith.
Since the family decides the way they wish the funeral to proceed, including the amount of time they want you to expend on the service, and planning of it, your compensation should be appropriate to the time involved. An example would be that services of one hour or less might cost between $30.00 to $100.00. If there is an additional graveside service you will want to adjust your fees upward. If the service is only at the graveside you may wish to hold at the lower amounts. Remember you are the one they see, as guiding their departed loved one on the right path. Be a professional at all times, represent your faith as a servant of God in all ways.
Now, not all services desired by the family are to be religious in nature, so be prepared to perform civil ceremonies as well. Since this is a one time event at the end of each life, the memory of the ceremony you provide needs to hold positive attributes for the family in later years. Do as they ask of you, not only as you think it should be done.
The first thing that often happens after the death of a loved one is trying to find an available minister that may, or may not be familiar with the family. This is when being prepared comes into service for you. Though you may not know the family, the fact that you have a program in place will help you set up, and perform the ceremony. You should be prepared to deliver a message of hope and understanding to family and friends of the deceased. You should be prepared to speak of God's love and compassion, or be able to leave this out in cases of civil ceremonies. In a civil ceremony you may wish to focus on the deceased's life and accomplishments as friends and family saw them.
So often there are things many know nothing about that a friend or family member wants to share. Items such as this are helpful in planning the ceremony. A Military history is often added to both types of ceremonies. Always keep in mind that the service you are providing is for the living, and not the dead. The needs of the family should be of utmost importance to you during this time. Often a family member or friend may wish to give a eulogy on behalf of the departed one. You should work with them to keep this time down to under five minutes or less. Yet you should again remember that there is no right or wrong when it comes to the family's requests.
Oftentimes today, the eulogy is simply a biography read by the minister, so you need to take good notes while discussing the planning of the funeral. The little things you are told will mean a great deal to others during the service.
Let us presume that you have been asked to perform a service for someone you never met. Here, the notes you take will be invaluable to providing a memorable experience for the family. Now let's bypass the regular service, and jump to the graveside service. There is not any one proper way to perform this part of the service. Usually this part of the ceremony is substantially shorter. The Minister usually says a few words of scripture, or of hope and love. Then, in this country, it is a common custom to pick up a little soil, and sprinkle it over the coffin. The most common statement I've heard at this time is "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we commend this body back to the earth from which it came." There are many variations of these words, but these are the ones I grew up with.
Though the funeral process often starts when the family contacts the Minister, there are times when you may first be called to the deathbed to console the dying person. This is not the time to start the planning, but a time of praying with or for the individual. This time is usually used to aid the dying by easing their minds, and for grieving with the family. If the family or the dying person insists on starting preparations you should respect their wishes, but unless the dying person demands to be a part of the planning, it should not be done over the deathbed.
Next we have some questions the Minister will need answered in able to be of most assistance to the family.
- Who is in charge of the funeral planning, and when can you meet with them about the arrangements?
- What is the location of the cemetery they plan to use?
- What Chapel or funeral home do they plan to use?
- What is the time of the service, and will there be a viewing? Would they like for the Minister to be present during this time?
- Will there be any form of Military honors such as a flag presentation, or rifle salute? If so, who will receive the flag?
- Were their any particular situations they wished mentioned as a special honor, or any special music they want played?
- Develop a schedule of service that explains who and when additional people will speak, or sing. Write this plan out and have the family approve it prior to the funeral.
Now let us return to the main service. Many times, the funeral is wrought with outbursts of grief by family and friends. When they are overcome with emotions, others will often go to their assistance with consoling thoughts, and embraces. It is proper for the minister to pause in the service to allow these folks to be comforted, and then pick up where you left off. Do Not go back to the beginning of your service as this will create extra feelings of unrest in the congregation.
The Minister should lead the service from the pulpit or the head of the casket if done prior to the graveside. With many people being cremated today, the ceremony is often done without the deceased present. The Minister should conduct his or herself in a manner that promotes peace, love and holiness in honor of the occasion. Try to work within the family's belief system, but don't pretend if you are not comfortable in their faith. Sincerity will be more appreciated, and respected by everyone concerned.
Now we need to discuss your basic program. You will need to first introduce yourself to the family and friends gathered for the service. Then, though it seems silly, you should say why you are all there. Mention the deceased's name and relationship to the close surviving family members and usually their names also. This may seem unnecessary to you, but you are establishing your presence, and function in these proceedings.
In a religious service, you may wish to open with a prayer, followed by a scripture, and into your message of hope and peace for both the living, and the dead. From here it is customary to perhaps have a song by the congregation, by a choir, or soloist, if available. At this time, the Minister presents a sermon on death and dying that includes the biography of the departed. Here you include the special comments the family wishes shared about the deceased. Often this is followed by the eulogy if one is to be added.
For the services where music is available, it is now time for an additional hymn, and followed by a closing prayer. The final step is often the benediction, or closing statements of the Minister. Many times you may ask everyone to bow his or her heads to accept holy empowerment.
As music is played for the recessional, the Minister leads the casket from the chapel to the hearse. The Minister will then take place in line of procession to the grave site.
At the grave it is preferable for the Minister to lead the pallbearers from the hearse to the grave as they carry the casket. Once the casket is set in place, the Minister waits for the followers to arrive and take up their places.
The final committal or graveside ceremony should not be long in nature, unless it is the only service being provided. Normally, the Minister will quote a few scriptures, make a few appropriate remarks, and a closing statement. This is where the ashes saying is used. Remember that in this setting, most of the guests are standing, and do not care to for very long.
After the final benediction, the Minister often will say a few quiet words to the family in way of consoling them. A small prayer or blessing is often appropriate at that time. You should keep in mind that your duties are not quite done.
In a few days, up to a week after the ceremony the Minister should call on the family to see how they are doing. This is a time that they can share their emotions and you as a minister need to listen, and console them. The follow-up shows sincerity in the Minister, and helps to develop stronger relations with the family. This shows the minister as a representative of God, and connects on a more personal level with the family. It shows that the Minister is there for them not only in time of grief, but also times of joy.
This contact, whether in person or over the phone, gives those building a congregation a chance to invite the family to join the congregation in worship. Do not overlook this important contact. How this family perceives you will be shared with many other people.
Do what is right, and behold the favor of faith unleashed within you.