November 18, 2017

The Ministry of Funerals for Unbelievers

Wally Morris

My wife and I have been serving the Lord at Charity Baptist Church for almost 23 years, longer than any other pastor in Huntington. Our town is a small town (less than 18,000 people) and the population is decreasing as businesses are closing. Huntington is a rural, farming area with light industry and small businesses. The town is becoming more like a “bedroom community” as people work somewhere else while living here.

Huntington has four funeral homes, three owned by individual families and the fourth part of a larger chain. For several years one of the funeral homes has asked me to officiate funerals when the family does not attend any church but would like a minister to speak at the funeral. I usually average about five funerals a year for families like this. I have already officiated three this year for these situations, in addition to the several funerals I have officiated for believers.

Officiating the funeral of a believer is relatively easy. I have much freedom to preach the gospel at such funerals, and the atmosphere and attitude of the people reflects joy in the sadness. The funeral of a believer is usually a great testimony of a life which has been invested in “a better country”.

The funeral of an unbeliever or of a person where I have significant doubt about his salvation is much harder to officiate. The gospel must be given but must be done so in a tactful and sensitive way. One of my goals in these situations is not to get salvation decisions at that time but to plant seeds of doubt in the heart of those listening who usually have never been carefully challenged about their life and view of this world. Even at the funerals of unbelievers there are always a few who truly know Christ and afterwards mention their appreciation that someone said some things that needed to be said.

Funerals such as these are fascinating to watch as I speak. I see people who do not make any claim to be a Christian yet who are looking at me and listening intently to what I am saying. For some, I can see the hostility in their faces. Others won’t look at me but keep their head bowed, looking at the floor. I usually stay until the family leaves and stand near the main doors with the funeral home director and employees. Most people walk past me without saying a word.

When I attend funerals which I am not officiating, I like to sit in the back and watch people as the minister speaks. Very often, after about five minutes, the teenagers and young adults are not listening anymore. Usually it’s because the speaker is boring and has nothing interesting or relevant to say – the standard “he was a good person” speech and a poem about butterflies. Sometimes (rarely) it’s because the message is good but they just don’t want to listen to what he’s saying about death.

We are living in a culture which focuses on youth, health, and “your best life now.” When death interrupts all of that, people resent being reminded of what they are trying to forget. I have officiated funerals for people of all ages, from the youngest baby to the oldest adult. Age is almost irrelevant where death is concerned. Many people are shocked that death would dare to intrude into their busy lives.

For many, this funeral is the first funeral they have ever attended. They usually sit in the back of the room, as far away from the body as possible. The back rows usually fill quickly. Other people come but try not to get close to the body or leave after a few minutes of polite conversation with the family.

I see and sense a growing hardness among more people today. Some people are obviously angry that someone they know has died, especially if that death was a sudden death or involved cancer. People are often angry at God but rarely express that anger except to a few close friends. So sometimes I mention this problem in an attempt to give some basic answers to the questions that are motivating the anger. However, some people would rather stay angry than have answers because answers mean that you may have to change your mind about God and what has happened. Staying angry means that you don’t have to wrestle with your unbelief and can continue to feel self-righteous.

Yet, at the same time, many people are willing to listen to an honest, careful, tactful, and clear word from the Bible. Many people have been living many years with what the world offers and are finding that deal pretty rotten. To be able to give them “the way, the truth, and the life”, some answers from the Bible, and challenge their assumptions about themselves and their lives is a great opportunity and great blessing.

Wally Morris is pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Huntington, IN. The church blogsite is He has also published A Time To Die: A Biblical Look At End-Of-Life Issues by Ambassador International.

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