When the Death Bell Rings
I will never forget the great Baptist preacher Ramsey Pollard relating his first experience officiating a funeral service as young pastor. He served a country church and was called on to officiate the service of one of its members. The usual apprehensions filled his mind. Seminary had not prepared him for this basic pastoral task.
Somewhere he had read that the officiate was to walk in front of the casket and read Scripture en route to the burial place. Having successfully navigated the service itself, he proceeded out the door in front of the casket to lead the funeral procession to the adjacent cemetery. Opening his Bible, he began to read words of comfort in reverent tones. So engrossed was he in reading that he failed to see the looming cavity of the gravesite and promptly fell foot-first into the six-foot hole!
Panicked by the mortifying thoughts of being in a grave and the obvious embarrassment of his misstep, he scrambled out quickly and began to run. He related that he was grateful a deacon caught him as he was climbing a fence trying to escape. The deacon urged him to return and finish his funeral duties. Pollard said that had he not, he probably would still be running.
Most of us can relate to this story in one way or another. After all, how do you practice doing death services? That’s one of the reasons behind my writing this book. With over forty years of walking down the concourse of grief, death, and funeral/memorial services, I have picked up a few things that I believe can be of help to those who are called to assist in one of the most difficult areas of ministry.
The following are practical pointers that have served me well in rural, suburban, and urban settings, while subsequent chapters are written around funeral or memorial messages. Some of the pointers in this chapter are specific while others are more general in nature.
Tip #1: What to Do on Receiving Notification of a Death
1. See the family as soon as possible at the home, hospital, or emergency room.
• Pray with them.
• Listen to them.
• Lend your shoulder.
• Don’t use such phrases as, “It must be the will of God,” “God needed another angel,” etc. They’re not ready for that.
• Remember: your presence is what counts.
2. Seek a family member or close family friend with whom you can talk.
• Find someone who is not so emotionally distraught.
• Begin discussing some preliminary planning for the next steps that must be taken.
3. Schedule to go back in the next day or two to plan the memorial service. If possible, see them again before they go to the funeral home.
4. Sometimes you may be asked to assist in the selection of a casket, a burial place, even clothes for the deceased.
• Be helpful when asked, but do not take over.
• Personal note: I try to steer the families away from high priced accessories that family members often have a tendency to prefer because of their desire to honor their deceased loved ones. Some people have the resources to handle this, but many do not. They can be burdened with debt long into the future, and we can help them by encouraging more moderate costs.
Tip #2: What to Do When Visiting in the Home
1. Ask about the desired place and time for the service: Church, funeral home, or graveside? If they are faithful church members, I encourage the use of the church facilities—a place of warmth, familiarity, memories, and a major part of their lives.
2. Ask about the type of service: memorial if cremation or funeral if body present?
3. Ask who will officiate: pastor, former pastor, staff member, family member, or a friend who is a minister?
4. Ask what type of music is preferred.
• Live, piped-in, tape, or CDs?
• Hymns, praise songs, favorites? Keep in mind the family members who remain, for the loved one is in glory.
• Choir, ensembles, solos, organ, piano, or other music?
5. Ask about favorite Scriptures: family preferences, life passages, or favorite verses of the deceased? Often I have used the deceased’s Bible from which to read. This is most appreciated by the family.
6. Ask about any eulogy.
• Pastor can deliver one he has written (if he knows the deceased well), or read one the family has composed.
• Extended family members and friends can also do this.
• Sometimes more than one eulogy is used. If so, be sure to have the participants write the eulogies. This will guard the time as well as help them if they should be overcome with emotion. It also keeps people from rambling.
7. Ask the family if they want a visitation: Night before? Afternoon? Prior to the service? None?
8. Where will the committal be?
• Cremation or ground burial?
• Do they want ashes to be scattered or kept?
• Will there be a military salute, service, or club recognition?
9. Ask about the people they prefer for active pallbearers.
• Family, friends, or both?
• Honorary pallbearers?
• The funeral director will also assist in this.
10. Try to be there with the immediate family as much as possible when planning the service.
Tip #3: What to Do When Scheduling the Service
1. Be sure space is available and the church calendar is checked.
2. Times must be very clear.
3. Contact musicians.
4. If necessary, check with technical assistants for lighting, sound, recording, or videotaping.
5. Prepare the order of service for musicians, tech crew, and funeral directors.
6. Look at a time frame of thirty-five minutes to one hour for most services.
Tip #4: What to Do During the Funeral Home Visit
1. Try to visit with the family during the scheduled funeral home visitation.
• If possible, meet with the family for a few minutes prior to their viewing the body for the first time.
• This is a very emotional time for the family as the reality of death sinks in even more deeply.
• This is especially important if a widow or widower and the deceased does not have extended family or strong church support.
2. At some point, you must address whether the family wants to close the casket before or after the service.
• I usually encourage the family to do so before the service. If the casket is left open during the service—or closed and then reopened—this brings a fresh outpouring of grief, and the worship service’s message of encouragement and faith may not come across.
• I encourage the family—as the funeral director probably will—to remove rings, necklaces, jewelry, teddy bears, etc. from the casket. These can be kept in the family and preserved as cherished keepsakes or heirlooms.
3. Seek to give guidance about designating gifts as memorials to the church or a favorite charity or ministry. This provides a living legacy for the deceased.
Tip #5: What to Do During the Service
1. Meet the family in a side room in the church or funeral home for prayer and encouragement. I usually tell them how much their loved one meant to me, outline the procedure for the service, join hands with family members, and pray with them.
2. Precede the family into the service, have the audience rise until the family has been seated, and then ask everyone to be seated.
3. Welcome everyone to the service. Remind them that the purpose of our gathering is to honor Christ and the loved one who has died, as well as to encourage the family.
4. Following this is a good place to read the obituary notes of birthplace and date, names of family members, etc. before proceeding with the planned service.
Tip #6: What to Do When Concluding the Service
1. Give clear direction about plans for immediately after dismissal.
• Does the family want one last private time with the body?
• Will there be a reception? If so, where? Some families are now having a private burial, then proceeding to a public memorial service, and afterwards hosting a reception at the church or in their home.
• If going immediately to the cemetery, inform the people of that and of how to form into the processional line.
2. Walk in front of the casket as it is carried out of the church or funeral home. Stand at reverent attention while the casket is placed in the hearse.
3. The funeral director will have your car in the proper place for the procession or will inform you where he wants you to be. This is usually just behind the hearse so that on arrival you can be ready to assist the pallbearers as they take the body to the place of interment.
Tip #7: What to Do at the Graveside
1. Walk before the casket to the appointed place.
2. Stand where the head of the casket is to rest.
3. Wait until everyone is in place before beginning.
4. Speak loudly as being outside absorbs sound quickly.
5. Sometimes the family will desire that a chorus of a familiar hymn or praise song be sung. You or someone else can lead this.
6. Keep the graveside ceremony short. A passage of Scripture on the resurrection and/or the second coming is always appropriate. Pray a brief prayer of committal.
7. If other additions to the graveside ceremony—such as military, lodge, or club—are planned, you may want them to go first.
8. After the closing prayer, shake hands with the immediate family and then step aside.
9. The funeral director will usually conclude the service by directing the pallbearers to place their flowers on the casket.
10. Sometimes, the family wants to stay in place for the covering of the grave. I do not recommend this, but that is a family choice.
I offer these tips for your assistance. Some of the above will vary because of culture, tradition, section of the country, or church practice. But for the most part, they will be appropriate in nearly every situation.
It is my prayer that the following messages will be the seedbed for your inclusions, imagination, and initiative. We all feel as Jane Caudyle, who wrote: “Never does one feel so utterly helpless as trying to speak comfort for great bereavement.”1 Yet, this is our call, our privilege, our responsibility. Only we as ministers of the gospel can be messengers of hope in the midst of grief as we remind our listeners, “It has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).
I’ll Hold You Again in Heaven
2 Samuel 12:15–23 Of all deaths, that of a child is most unnatural and hardest to bear. We expect the old to die. While that kind of separation is always difficult, it comes as no surprise. But the death of a young child or a youth is a different matter. Life with its beauty, wonder, and potential lies ahead for them. Death is a cruel thief when it strikes down the young.
In a way that is different from any other relationship, a child is bone of his parents’ bone and flesh of their flesh. When a child dies, part of the parent is buried.1 So writes Joseph Bayly, who had the sad duty of burying three of his children.
When we lose a child, the effect is widespread. It not only touches the parents, but it can involve siblings, grandparents, friends, and caregivers in a unique way. In the Scripture there is a story that offers us some insight and comfort as we share in this grief. David and Bathsheba’s little boy lived only seven days.
I. Reminder That All of Us Can Be Recalled
Life, when it is brief, is a reminder that all of us can be recalled at any time. Life is transitory. “Each man’s life is but a breath” (Ps. 39:5). Since we have no guarantee of how long God chooses to grant life, we must maximize the opportunities God gives us. Count every day a blessing. Bless every day by counting.
II. Respond in Grief Until We Find Relief
The illness and death of David’s child teaches us how to respond in grief until we find relief. There must be the expression of grief. It must do its work. He did not try to bury his feelings. Grief is a felt response. It must not be smothered. David made a mistake in his grief. He tried to grieve alone. A grief shared is a burden divided. “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Rom. 12:15 KJV).
Time will bring some healing, but it will not heal all the wound. Billy Graham wrote, “Time does not heal. It’s what you do with the time that heals … a long life or a short life are of equal importance to God.”2 If we bury our grief, it is like a toxic waste. It will surface again, and the contamination makes for more trouble. Time alone doesn’t overcome sorrow, because sorrow is neutral, a vacuum. Therefore, we turn to the only one who can enable us to deal with our grief: God. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). Faith in Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, gives us unexpected strength. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.
When he was told his child was dead, David made a statement in his grief that has brought comfort to people for generations: “He is dead … Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). David recognized there was a distinctive line between this world and the next. The child would not come back, but he would go to the child.
How can we be sure that an infant or child has gone to heaven since they may not have accepted Jesus Christ? Because they were too young to have chosen sin, to have reached an accountable age, to have known about sin and salvation through Jesus Christ. The saving work of Christ has reversed sin’s curse and covered this little one.
David felt assured of his child’s presence in heaven and also that he would be there as well. David had sinned. He was accountable. Why did he have hope? Psalm 51 is the eloquent expression of David’s confession of sin and guilt. He sought God’s forgiveness, and he received it. The Scriptures are clear: “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13 KJV). This child is in the Lord’s presence by God’s grace. And through Jesus Christ we will get there, too.
III. Recognize the Sovereignty of God
The death of a child is a time to recognize the sovereignty of God. That growing awareness brings rest to our spirit. God loves children. Scripture clearly illustrates this. Hoping that Jesus might touch them, people brought babies to him. When the disciples saw this, they tried to send them away. But Jesus said to his disciples, “Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in” (Luke 18:16–17 The Message).
When a child dies, all of us struggle with the purpose and will of God. Every person has a purpose in the divine design. Marshall Shelley and his wife lost a child shortly after birth. In writing about that brief life and their grief, he said, “Why did God create a child to live two minutes? He didn’t. He did not create Mandy to live two years. He did not create me to live forty years (or whatever number he may choose to extend my days in this world). God created Toby for eternity. He created each of us for eternity, where we may be surprised to find our true calling, which always seemed just out of reach here on earth.”3
IV. Release This Child Until We Are Rejoined
Finally, we ask God to give us peace as we seek to release this child until we are rejoined. David said, “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). David’s response and insight carries penetrating truth for us. The Scriptures tell us that he went to the house of the Lord and worshiped, comforted his wife, and returned to the business of life (vv. 20, 24, 29).
This child has brought joy and taught us so much about the precious gift of a child. Though grief hammers at our hearts and the memories will always be cherished, we realize, because of Jesus and his victory over death, that there will be a reunion.
Kenneth McFarland told of an item he found on the obituary page of the newspaper in a small southern town. It read, “Billy, it was just a year ago today that you left us and the sunshine went out of our lives. But, we turned on the headlights and we’re going on … and Billy, we shall keep on doing the best we can until that glorious day when we shall see you again.” It was signed simply “Love, the family.” No names, just a simple testimony to the kind of faith that enables a person to go on in the face of sorrow and death.4
Until we come to that day when all mysteries, purposes, and plans of God are sorted out for us in the day when we shall see God face-to-face, let us be thankful that this life has enriched us and made us the better because of it.
Nathaniel Timothy Kuck was a beautiful child, who spent most of his four and one-half years overcoming physical obstacles. When he went to be with the Lord, a neighbor, blessed by his life and the comments of his father at the memorial service, wrote these words as if the father, Tim, were writing:
As I look back on what the years did bring,
I wouldn’t change a single thing.
He taught me how to appreciate life,
He taught my girls, and taught my wife.
Now he dances with David and fishes with Peter;
I can’t imagine a life that’s neater.
When I look back, the conclusion I draw
’Twas me who got the longest straw.5
This child belongs to God. Today we release his hands as God has grasped them over there, and he will never let them go. “The key to your child’s casket is not in the hands of the keeper of the cemetery. But the key is in the hands of the Son of God, and he will come some morning and use it.”6 “ ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” ’ (Rev. 1:8).
Henry, Jim: A Minister's Treasury of Funeral & Memorial Messages. Nashville, TN : Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003, S. 1