Through 16 years of pastoral ministry, these are the things that I have learned to make sure that I do when ministering to a family that has lost a love one. This is not an exhaustive list, and I welcome your additions.
1. Meet with the Family. Throughout the entire process, this meeting will inform you how to address each aspect. When you meet with them, invite everyone that wants to have a say in the planning of the funeral/memorial service to attend. If possible make sure that it is a couple of days before the service so that you have plenty of time to craft a helpful message and handle all the details in a professional and caring way. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and that’s when you will have to burn some midnight oil. Remember you are a minister, and this isn’t about you.
When you meet with the family, I suggest it is at your church in a large Sunday School room or conference room where everyone can have a literal, as well as figurative, seat at the table. Have several strategically placed boxes of tissues, and begin the discussion with a simple statement about the purpose of the service – to honor the life of the loved one. No one lives a perfect life, but this isn’t the time to drag out all the skeletons from the closet, but rather to focus on the best aspects of the person. With that being said, I then direct the conversation with several open-ended questions to get them thinking and talking about their fondest memories. Here are some of my go-to questions:
“Were there any pet phrases or statements that __________ known for?”
“In what way do you wish you were more like__________?”
“What did __________ really love to do?”
“What is your favorite memory of __________?”
“What are you going to miss the most this coming year with __________ gone?”
As you listen to their responses, take copious notes. Note-taking communicates that you are listening to them, that you care about what they are saying and that you are planning on using some of this information in the service. It also helps you to be able to craft a one-of-a-kind funeral message. “A short pencil is better than a long memory.”
As dicussion dies down with each question, lead to the next one until you sense that they have shared what is most significant to them. This is not simply helpful to you in planning the service, but also cathartic for them. During the visitation and the funeral service, their attention will be divided between grieving and hosting their guests – this time is just for them. As a pastor, this is my favorite time with the family as well. No formalities, no functions – just a healing time of reflection. These meetings generally run the emotional gamit from uproarious laughter to sobbing tears…all of which is healing.
When you have a good sense of who the loved one was as a person, move to asking questions about the service itself:
“Are there any Scripture passages that are especially meaningful to you that you owuld like to have included in the service?”
“Is there anyone in the family that wants to offer a poem, a song or a special reading?”
“Do you want to offer a time for eulogies in the service?” (If they do, I always prompt them to have someone prepared to offer the first one…few things are as emotionally difficult as a long silence when you have asked people to share fond memories)
“Is there going to be a graveside service after the funeral/memorial?”
When you have the information, assure them that your goal will be to honor the life of their loved one and to lead people toward healing in Christ. Let them know that there will be a tasteful presentation of the good news of forgiveness for sins and eternal life in your message, and close the meeting in prayer.
What would you add to the meeting with the family?