What To Say At A Funeral?

ImageI have been invited by my friend J.John to contribute to a few books, one of the new ones will be a collection of funeral talks. I include my submission below. I have done so many hundreds of funerals but it’s always a great privilege. I offer the below to anyone who finds themselves in the position of doing a eulogy but more particularly Ministers of Religion leading services. Names and details etc have been changed.
Notes –  I am delighted to be asked to provide a talk in this collection. I believe that the opportunity to present the love, truth and hope of Christ at funerals is so great, and so often so greatly missed. Jesus must weep again at the graves of his friends as horror stories abound of Vicars forgetting the deceased person’s name etc. Not good enough! To be asked to speak at a funeral is one of the greatest privileges of ministry or indeed life. It deserves our prayerful hard work, full attention and every skill of pastoral ministry we can muster.  My old Vicar the late Alan Buckley told me to ALWAYS start by saying ‘I am very sorry,’ sincerely, at the beginning of the address – to the family. I have never forgotten to do so and it has always been well received. People don’t care what you know until they know you care.  

These notes are from the funeral some years back of a well known local pub landlady and animal lover. I had spent some time before visiting her in the hospice and preparing her for death which came as a welcome release for someone with a deep, personal faith. I always get details of the person’s biography and intersperse something of their life story and interests within the talk. There was more of that in the original talk. It makes the event less preachy and more personal.


I always conclude by praying for comfort for CLOSE family (and friends if appropriate) BY NAME.


I also as you will see at the end pray for the person by inviting everyone present to remember them ‘as you knew her..’ and painting a little word picture. I usually ask the family beforehand, ‘If you were only allowed single words not sentences, what words would you use to describe the type of person she was?’


I also ask, ‘If you were to picture her at her happiest, what would she be doing?’ I make notes on all this and that forms much of the content of my prayer. In doing so I invite everyone to remember with thanks the person in prayer and in some way that memory brings the person to life again…





Once again I’d like to say to Jim and the boys how sorry I was to hear that Mrs. __________ had died. It was such a privilege to get to know her, thank you for the invitation to lead the service today.I doubt that there’s a better known passage of Scripture than the 23rd Psalm. I read it to Ruth as I prayed with her and it’s kept coming to me as I’ve talked with Jim in recent weeks too. I have read this passage so many times at so many funeral services I have given, because after the death of a loved one, people need to be reminded that God walks beside you.God knew Ruth before she was born, walked with her since she was born in ____ , and he still does now.She was a remarkable lady. Brought up a farmer’s daughter with her younger sister Ann in a small village in Cambridgeshire, encouraged to know her bible and trust God from her early childhood she said yes to Jesus’ love at the age of 6 and was baptised in a bath at 10.Now I suppose the words of the 23rd Psalm have offered more comfort, calmed more fears, and encouraged more hearts than any other poem ever written, and that’s what it is: A poem written by King David, from the perspective of a sheep. I don’t know what kind of farm it was Ruth grew up on but I can’t imagine a farm without sheep. And I always picture a sheep in this Psalm as enjoying a pretty peaceful and contented life – because the sheep has the ultimate shepherd watching.King David wrote this Psalm to convince us that God has our best interest in mind- God wants to give us a fulfilling, hope-filled life, and that even extends beyond the grave. David had learned to care for people by first learning to care for animals, something you all know was true of Ruth hey?

David understood from the time he served out in the Judean fields how vital a shepherd was to the well being of the sheep.

I’m a city boy, though I’ve lived and worked in various rural settings.

I’m no sheep expert, but I’ve stayed awake counting them enough, and I do know they’re not the smartest animals in the barn and they smell pretty bad. That’s about the limit of my knowledge of sheep. But David knows his stuff when he talks about being a shepherd. This is his old stomping ground, literally. He knows what it’s like. To him, all the sheep were individuals, they all had names- he cared for each one.

Year ago as part of an outreach I’d been invited to speak at I had the opportunity to stay on a farm. A real, working farm. I’d never been that close to nature and this was something of an adventure. As I went to bed I asked the farmer to wake me up in the morning. A few minutes later it seemed I heard a knock at the door. The day on the farm starts early! We were off to go and look after the animals. I walked ahead of him to a field, and saw it was full of sheep. I didn’t know what to say to them. I nodded a ‘Good morning,’ and they all ran away!

I should have known – in The New Testament, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, said Sheep don’t follow a stranger’s voice but flee from him. Suddenly the farmer turned up, made some strange farmer noise, and all the sheep came running to him- or more precisely to the feed in his buckets.

Where do you look for comfort – on a day like today? People look for comfort in the bottom of a bottle, or in buying something new, but there’s not much comfort there. There’s some comfort from friends who love you. And there’s great comfort in the voice of the Good Shepherd.

I wonder what your favourite line is from that well known psalm? Look what it tells us –

Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

The Hebrew word here literally means that nothing will be lacking. Where? He goes on to say: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” In other words, God provides a place of rest for us. // For you, me, Ruth. To get sheep to rest, they must be free from fear and sickness, there must be no worry among them, they must not be aggravated by the weather conditions, and they can’t be hungry. They have to learn to trust the shepherd for all these things. Then they can lie down, because they know the shepherd.

Verse 2: “He leads me beside quiet waters.”  God is not behind us shouting ‘go on’! He goes ahead of us bidding, inviting, “Come!” He is in front, clearing the path for us, making the way straight and safe. On the night before his death, Jesus reassured his friends, ‘Don’t be worried or afraid – I am going to prepare a place for you, so that you may be where I am.”

I love verse three: “He restores my soul.” I’ve had so many people tell me time and again (whether they would describe themselves as believers or not) that they came into this church just feeling down, sad, exhausted, but something happens in this place and they walked out like a different person with a different attitude. What happened? The Good Shepherd restored your soul. With hope. He will restore your soul today if you ask him to. He is the good shepherd.

He directs; because sheep go astray. They’re needy, defenseless, they get nervous. They are easily led. Sheep on their own are soon lost. That’s why we have the picture in the New Testament of the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to go and get the one.

That time I was on the farm, somehow the farmer was counting all the sheep. They just looked like a dirty cloud of hooves and teeth to me. But he said, ‘One’s missing!’ Then he marched off to the far end of the field, and looking far into the distance, I saw that missing sheep too. The farmer made that funny noise again – and the sheep set off full speed toward him, and food, and safety.

Maybe that’s why there are so many comparisons to people and sheep in the Bible. Maybe that’s why God is like a Shepherd. We can all lose our way, especially when times are hard- when we need some divine intervention from the Good Shepherd to get back on track.

Now in the first three verses of Psalm 23, God is referred to as He, but in the next three verses the focus shifts his thoughts – he calls God You. At first we were you’re seeing God from a distance, but now He’s up close and personal. Why do you think that it?

Because of where he’s going; Psalm 23:4; “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

“The valley of the shadow of death” is an actual location in Palestine. A narrow pass through a mountain range. It’s four-and-a-half miles long with sidewalls over 1000 feet high in places, while it’s only ten or twelve feet wide at the bottom. Travelling through that valley is dangerous and scary. But if you stick close to the shepherd, you have nothing to fear. There is one who will protect you, who’ll walk beside you through that temporary darkness, and bring you out into the light.

Shadows can be frightening, especially the one cast by Death. Without a shepherd we’d be entirely fearful here. But it’s just a shadow. We can struggle with other enemies like pain, suffering, disease, and injury. But we can’t make it through this valley without the Shepherd leading us.

You all know Ruth was an overcomer- she achieved amazing things in this life that will echo in eternity and in a moment we’re going to remember them and her. But no amount of courage, strength, imagination, perseverance – can finally overcome death. We can’t do that ourselves!

Here’s the hope I offer you all today. Christians believe there is one person who can walk with us through death’s dark valley and bring us safely to the other side. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s historical fact that  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, experienced the cruellest death but then conquered the grave. He’s been there! And you can trust him when He says, “I’ll take you through…”

Time and again I have been at the bedside of someone who knows they haven’t got long ahead of them in this life, as I was with Ruth in the morning of her last day here. People ask me – ‘What do you say?’

Well what would you say? What do you think happens when you die? Where is your hope? Is it just for this life?

I try to remind the person… The Lord is Your Shepherd.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… David writes; I will fear no evil, (WHY?) for you are – — with me.

Who you are with makes all the difference. Thank you to all the friends here today to support the family – I know they’d want me to say it makes all the difference. We need each other. In the same way, sheep need the companionship of a shepherd. The Good Shepherd who provides for our needs, protects us through the shadow of death, and finally he promises to reward us.

Psalm 23:5b, 6: “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

“My cup overflows.” What a lovely picture of hospitality! Bedouin shepherds have an ancient tradition that when travellers are coming through they always let the visitors stay in their house. When the travellers want something to drink, they fill their cup up to the top. But after they have worn out their welcome and stayed longer than they should, the next day, their cup will be only half filled. It’s a nice way of saying, ‘Time Gentlemen Please!’

That helps me understand what the writer of this Psalm is saying. Ruth would know it too from her years of hospitality at the Ox and Plough. “My cup overflows.” The image is that when you come to the table of the Lord, just come as you are today when we pray in a minute – he welcomes you in, and says, “Stay. Stay as long as you want.”

He keeps filling the cup full. I don’t have to rush away and he has nothing and nobody he would rather be with. The cup’s not just full, it’s overflowing.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

As we commit Ruth now to that person, in that place he has prepared –

Let’s pray… (here’s how I’d start to pray)

Ruth has been described by those who knew her best as a kind, funny, thoughtful lady who always had a word of encouragement and treated people like they were welcome guests, not just customers.

Maybe you’ll picture her as you pray, standing ready to greet you at the pub, or walking her dogs around the village, or as she was at their Golden wedding celebration surrounded by her kids and grandkids…

However you remember her – why don’t you offer that picture to the Lord now, the Good Shepherd…