A friend asked me for some advice about how to speak at a funeral for someone you don’t know. That sort of thing happens to pastors occasionally. I can remember a few times speaking at a funeral where my first glimpse of the person was in the casket. Those situations put the pastor in a difficult situation because you want to speak the truth, you want to comfort the family, you want to be true to your calling, and you don’t want to speak beyond what you know. We all understand that the grieving family needs hope and desperately wants to believe that their loved one is in heaven. But what do you say when you didn’t know the person at all? Here are a few things you can say with certainty . . .
1) Your loved one is in the Lord’s hands now. I often use those exact words. That’s a comfort to the family.
2) Their earthly struggle has come to an end. (This is a powerful point, especially when a person has died after a long illness.)
3) The God we worship is a God of grace and mercy.
4) The Lord will do right by each person.
If I knew the family personally, I would say something like this: “Don’t worry about Joe. The Lord will take care of him. No mistakes will be made.” I might even say, “No one will go to hell except people who truly deserve to be there. No one will be there by mistake.” To me that’s an obvious statement, but I’ve found that unchurched people are comforted by that thought. It helps them in their grief. You can’t always be this bold. It depends totally on the moment.
5) The other side of that truth is this: No one goes to heaven except people who don’t deserve to be there. That’s a curve ball that catches people by surprise. It’s a way of saying, “We are saved by grace” but in different terms. We want people to realize (without thinking it out loud) that the people who are in hell are those who deserve to be there, and the people in heaven are those who don’t deserve to be there. You don’t even have to use the word hell at all. It’s heaven that people want to hear about. And you don’t need to say, “Joe is in heaven.” That’s at least as presumptuous as saying, “Joe is in hell.” We can safely leave those determinations to the Lord who knows the heart of every person.
6) So in the end, we are left with this. If any of us get to heaven, it will be because we realized we didn’t deserve to be there, but we cried out to God for mercy and trusted Christ to save us.
7) The most important thing for any of us is to be ready when our moment comes because it may come for any of us sooner than we think. Then you say something like, “The Lord who loved Joe loves you and me too. He died for Joe and he died for us too. The door to heaven is always open, but like any door, you have to go through it personally.” Then you are right at the gospel invitation.
This gets around the problem of “Where is he now?” Since we can’t answer that question, we just leave it alone and work around it gracefully. By saying it this way, we can be true to the Bible and also offer genuine comfort to the family and a challenge to all those present.