It is often said that the funeral service is for the benefit of the living, not the dead. From the standpoint of salvation, of course, this is true. The funeral, or lack thereof, does not determine or affect the everlasting status of the one who has died. Yet, we are still left with the question of how the deceased fits into the funeral sermon. Here there are two ditches to avoid. On one side of the road, we may not slip into the error of turning proclamation to a eulogy of the deceased which is often a pious or not so pious counterfeit postmortem absolution. On account of his or her good deeds, the dearly departed is declared righteous. On the other hand, preachers endeavoring to preach Christ alone might be tempted to avoid any mention of the particularity of the person who has died.
Salutary funeral preaching seeks to set the life of the baptized believer who has died within the life of Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, and reigning. In a day of designer funerals, pastors do well to attend to preaching that magnifies Christ without forgetting the individual Christian who has died. Funeral preaching is given its contours and content by the funeral liturgy itself. Here the preacher does well to pay attention to the rubrics and texts of the funeral rite itself (see Lutheran Service Book Agenda, pages 117-150).
The funeral sermon, like the liturgy itself, functions in seven ways:
First, it is kerygmatic. That is, the funeral sermon like all other Christian preaching proclaims the good news of forgiveness of sins in and through the innocent suffering, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of the One who alone is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is not proclaimed as a model for the good death or an example for those who are grief-stricken. Rather, He is proclaimed as the Lord whose death is death’s undoing. The funeral sermon is not palliative care for the grieving (although they will find comfort and healing here) but the announcement that Jesus, not death, is Lord.
The funeral sermon is not palliative care for the grieving (although they will find comfort and healing here) but the announcement that Jesus, not death, is Lord.
Second, it is ecclesial. The funeral sermon recognizes the departed Christian as a brother or sister with us in the una sancta; the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church. Their membership in the Body of Christ does not expire with death. Because they are baptized into Christ, they belong to Him forever. The funeral liturgy recognizes this with the “Remembrance of Baptism” at the beginning of the rite and it is echoed throughout the service. Funeral preaching will make this explicit.
Third, it is commemorative. God has given the gift of memory. Mourners need to recollect and recall who the deceased Christian was and how he or she was part of their lives. The LSB Agenda includes several templates for an obituary (see pages 148-149) which may be properly read in connection with the sermon. The sermon gives space for grief in the way of 1 Thessalonians 4:13, where it is set within the hope that does not disappoint.
Fourth, it is doxological. Memories of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus to the Christian evoke thanksgiving and praise. Here, the preacher is not so much eulogizing the deceased from blessing God who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift, including the gifts given through the masks of a beloved father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter, friend or co-worker. The Lord who both gives life and takes life is praised.
Fifth, it is confessional. The Apostles’ Creed is confessed in the burial liturgy. It is introduced with this formula: “God has made us His people through our Baptism into Christ. Living together in trust and hope, we confess our faith” (LSBA, 120). Funerals, along with weddings, are the most public services of the Church. It is essential that preaching rings loud and clear with the proclamation of both Law and Gospel. Death is not simply part of the great circle of life but the result of sin (see Psalm 90 and Romans 5:12-21). In a culture tempted to deny death or confine it to the realm of biology, the preacher of the cross names death for what it is: God’s judgment on sin. Preachers would do well to read and ponder Luther’s great lecture on Psalm 90 (see AE 13). In this commentary, Luther observes that without the preaching of the Law we will minimalize or trivialize death. In the face of sin and death, good funeral preaching will not shy away from confessing the Gospel.
Luther anchors the comfort of the sermon in the victory of Christ's cross and resurrection. "The resurrection of Christ has become the death of death." Our Lord's victory over death and the grave guarantees the believer's ultimate triumph. This is reflected in Luther's hymns, "In the Very Midst of Life" (755 LSB) and "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands" (458 LSB). While Luther never prepared a revised funeral liturgy, he contended that Christian funerals ought to, "…honor and praise that joyous article of our faith, namely, the resurrection of dead, and in order to defy Death, that terrible foe who so shamefully and in so many horrible ways goes on to devour us." Therefore, "We do not sing any dirges or doleful songs over our dead and at the grave, but comforting hymns of the forgiveness of sins, of rest, sleep, life, and of the resurrection of departed Christians so that our faith may be strengthened and the people moved to true devotion." The funeral sermon should be rich in the consolation of Christ’s resurrection as He is the resurrection and the life and He promises that the destiny of all who trust in Him will culminate in life everlasting.
Our Lord's victory over death and the grave guarantees the believer's ultimate triumph.
Sixth, it is sacrificial: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). We bring our grief and lament to God as a sacrifice, trusting in His mercy even in the face of contradiction and of things we cannot understand. The funeral sermon is no place for avoiding hard truths, but instead is the place where those truths can be lamented. Pain can be recognized and named even as it is commended to God.
Seventh and finally, it is eschatological: The sermon speaks to the living as it is a reminder of the omnipresence of death and the fact that there is a funeral in the future of every hearer in the service. It is a call to repentance and faith in the Lord who will come again to judge the living and dead.
There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all design for funeral sermons. There are particular circumstances such as the death of a child, the victim of murder, or a suicide that call for deep pastoral sensitivity and alert biblical integrity. Sometimes, one or more of these seven functions will receive more emphasis than others but in one way or another all are present as the preacher proclaims the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in the very face of death. The sermon aims to give the hearers the glad confidence of the psalmist: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 118:17).
For Further Reading:
Grassl, Fabian F. In the Face of Death: Thielicke- Theologian, Preacher, Boundary Rider. Eugene: Pickwick, 2019.
Long, Thomas. Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.
Pless, John T. “Pastoral Care of the Grieving” (pp. 109-118 in Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross- Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013.
Slenckza, Reinhard. Ziel und Ende. Neuendettelsau: Freidmund-Verlag, 2008.