What Should You Say at an Unbeliever’s Funeral?
The following is an edited transcript of Russell Moore's podcast Signposts.
The other day I had someone ask me about a funeral that she was going to. She said “This is a funeral for an unbeliever, and I’m trying to think through what to say.” I think that’s a really good question, and an important question for all of us, because we’ve been in this situation. Almost everybody has been in this situation; if you haven’t then you will be in the situation.
So when she says “what I should say,” really that could be a number of things. It could be the question of what should you say when you’re just there and you’re going through the the line talking to family members, in which case I think the response to that is simply to grieve with the family members and say, “I’m really sorry about the loss of your mother/dad/brother” or whomever it is and grieve with them.
Scripture tells us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. Jesus gives us the example of being grieved to the core at the death of Lazarus, and this was someone who obviously was a believer. But death itself is something Jesus sees as an enemy, and something that ought to provoke tears and grief. And so a simple “I’m here for you and with you,” “I grieve with you,” “I’ll be praying for you,”—all of those things are appropriate at a funeral.
The question becomes more complex when you’re dealing with someone who has to give a eulogy or someone who is a minister who’s actually preaching the funeral. I have a great deal of sympathy here, because the very first funeral that I ever did was for someone that I didn’t know and was a complete unbeliever. Not just an unbeliever, but someone who apparently had lived a pretty awful life, because the family members were standing in the background, and the pallbearers were standing in the back as we’re about to go in for the funeral. And one of them looked over at the grieving family and said, “Well bless their hearts, they’re better off because he was the meanest man I ever knew.” I thought, “You know what, if at the end of your life, your pallbearers say that you’re the meanest guy they ever knew, you have lived a rough life.” And so here I had to preach this funeral.
There was another time where the daughter of a woman who had died said to me, “You know, I’m trying to think through what to say in the eulogy and I really can’t think of anything kind to say about my mother except the fact that she kept the bird feeder stocked in her backyard. She cared for the birds.” I said, “There’s nothing?” “No.” She could find nothing. So I understand a little bit of the tension that happens there.
On the other hand, I’ve been to many funerals where someone that I knew to have been an unbeliever is there, and the the pastor will stand up and talk about how aunt Flossie is in the presence of Jesus now and has graduated on up into glory. And obviously what the pastor is intending to do is to comfort the family with the idea of Heaven for the loved one.
The problem, though, is it becomes really clear to people that what you’re doing is simply using Heaven as a means to an end. So you don’t really believe what it is that you’ve been saying about, “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ,” about the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, and repentance for sin. Because once someone’s dead, that’s all over with. That sort of pious lying about the life of a person, really does–in my view–great damage to the gospel.
That doesn’t mean that we go in the exact opposite direction. I was at a funeral one time where the person had died and they had multiple pastors. The first pastor stood up and said, “This is someone who’s in heaven right now and rejoicing with Jesus.” The second guy was an Independent Fundamentalist sort of pastor who said, “You know, I keep hearing all of this about how this guy is in heaven right now. But this guy never had time for the church, never had time for Christ, and never was willing to repent of his sins and put his faith in Jesus Christ. And I just want you all to know that at 3:45 AM last Tuesday, he busted hell wide open.” That’s not an appropriate word either at a funeral.
Instead, I think what we need to do at a funeral is a number of things. The first thing–whether you’re giving the eulogy or whether you’re officiating or whether you’re in some way leading this funeral–the first thing is to recognize and honor the dignity of that life. Whether it’s a believer or an unbeliever, this is somebody who is created in the image of God. This is somebody who in some way was “imaging” God. This is someone who operated within the common grace that God gives to all of humanity. So when we find something that’s praiseworthy in the life of the person who has died, what we’re saying is that this life really mattered. God displayed Himself in some way in this person’s life, and so I’m affirming that this person is created in the image of God, and I’m affirming all the good things that God did through this person.
In many cases, even someone who has made a total wreck of his or her life has had those times where God has used that person in some way or another in order to bless other people. Finding those things as an aspect of gratitude to God. “Thank you for the fact that you gave us this person. Thank you that you used this person in the following ways” is completely appropriate to do at a funeral. Now having said that, be honest and don’t make up attributes about this person who has died. If you do, all that you’re going to communicate to the people who are hearing you is not comfort. You’re just going to communicate the fact that you’re a liar. And they’re not going to believe anything else that you’ve said.
So if you have somebody who was a very miserly person, you don’t want to get up and say, “What a generous person this is.” If this is somebody who harbored bitterness, you don’t want to get up and say, “This is somebody who was so forgiving.” You want to be truthful in the things that you say. That doesn’t mean that you have to get up and say, “You know, this was a really bitter woman,” or, “This was a really unforgiving man.” You don’t need to say that. You leave those things in in silence. They don’t need to be said.
There are some cases where I think it’s appropriate to raise the sort of issue that everyone’s thinking of. I was at a funeral one time for someone who had been a really, really short-tempered guy. The Lord had used this guy in all sorts of ways, but everybody had had a run in with him, and every one of those run ins were really scorching. And so his son simply said, “Hey, my dad was not the easiest person to deal with. He was kind of a prickly guy.” And there was laughter, a kind of relieved laughter that took place in the room. Because the point of the eulogy was not to settle a score with his dad, it was to say, “Hey, I know you all are thinking about some difficult times that you had with my dad, but let’s also remember the ways that God used him.” I think that’s entirely appropriate in that case.
When it comes to the eternal destiny of the person who has died, when you’re dealing with a believer, of course, what you’re going to do is to draw on all of those Scriptures of hope. So you’re going to say, “We grieve, but we don’t grieve as those who have no hope.” You’re going to talk about Resurrection in Christ and Resurrection from the dead.
When you’re dealing with an unbeliever though, you don’t have all of those things. So what do you do? Well, I would want to say don’t presume that person is eternally lost. Don’t presume that the person is eternally saved. But don’t presume the person is eternally lost. And the reason I say this is that salvation is through faith.
Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness. We receive salvation as beggars, and Jesus has told us that it doesn’t matter whether we received salvation very early in our lives and lived our life for Christ, or if we cried out for mercy and Christ in those last seconds or nanoseconds before we go out into eternity. He’s given us the parable of the workers in the field, and the ones that came on early in the day and in the ones who came on at the end of the day being paid the same wage.
So we ought to recognize that. We also ought to recognize the example that our Lord gave us of the thief on the cross. And what stays in my mind constantly any time that an unbeliever I know dies or any time that I go to an unbeliever’s funeral is hearing a message in Southern Seminary Chapel probably 20 years ago where the preacher from Wales is preaching on the thief on the cross. He gave the illustration of a man who had been horseback riding and he was an unbeliever, all of his family had just given up on him as a hopeless unbeliever. He was thrown from the horse, believed the gospel mid-air, hit the ground, and went into a coma for some weeks. And when he woke up out of the coma as a Christian, his family was really shocked about this. And they all said, “If you had died, we would have assumed that you were in hell.”
This preacher said, “You know, if the thief on the cross had any God-fearing relatives, they probably assumed that he was under the Judgment of God. They probably were the most surprised people imaginable when in Paradise they find themselves in communion with this murderous thief that they had given up on a long time ago.
Well, that’s always a possibility. Don’t count on it, if you’re an unbeliever right now listening to this, it’s a very, very dangerous thing to say, “Well, I’ll just come to faith in Christ in those last seconds on my deathbed.” That’s a very dangerous thing. First of all, you don’t know how much time you have. You don’t know whether or not your death is going to be lingering or sudden. And you also need the grace of God in order to even recognize the truth of the gospel and the presence of Christ. So don’t presume upon that grace. Repent and believe.
But, as we’re thinking about other people, there’s always the possibility that in those last few seconds or moments that the message that has been given, that the seed that has been planted may have come to fruition. So let’s hold that at least as a possibility when we’re thinking about unbelievers. Which means we weep, we grieve, but we don’t pronounce though definitively that this person is in Hell. And I think what that also means is that we proclaim the gospel. Now you don’t have to get up and say, “Uncle Ronnie’s in heaven” or, “Aunt Flossie’s in hell.” You don’t have to do that.
What you have to do is to stand up and say, “We’ve gathered here today because of death. The death of this person that we knew, this person that many of us loved. We’re all going to face death. Death is an enemy that’s coming for us all, and you can’t outlast death. You can’t fight death with money, or with health, or with anything else. You’re going to ultimately face death. How do you face death? You face death as a sinner who’s in need of forgiveness and you face death as someone who receives the life that comes through the shed blood, broken body and resurrected life of Jesus Christ.”
So preach the gospel. You don’t have to narrate and adjudicate every aspect of this unbeliever’s life in order to say to people, “There is hope for you no matter what it is that you’ve done. You can find salvation and today is the day of salvation.” I think that’s the way to handle an unbeliever’s funeral.