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Archive for Funerals


The Gift of Pre-Planned Funerals

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(If you’re not a Pastor, the majority of this article can still be beneficial to you! Just skip the first and last paragraphs, and you’ll get to the core importance, which is your need to pre-plan your funeral!)

As Pastors, we often try to stay out of the personal affairs of our congregants, especially when it comes to legal and financial issues. Someone has drawn an imaginary line that seems to keep pastors “in their lane,” unless approached by a person for spiritual direction.

My mother died in January after complications from COVID-19. She battled hard for two weeks before she lost to the virus. One of the best gifts she gave to her children at the time of her death was a pre-planned funeral. Several years ago, we sat down with a funeral director to pre-plan both of my parents’ funerals. We made all the needed selections and decisions as well as making financial arrangements for payment. So when my mother passed, it was a simple call to the funeral director, followed by a 30 minute meeting to go over some final details regarding services. Yes, 30 minutes.

Traditionally, when a person dies the family has 72 hours to complete the following tasks:

  • Say goodbye to their loved one
  • Select a funeral home
  • Inform the hospital, hospice center, or medical examiner of the funeral home
  • Call for an appointment with the funeral director
  • Locate appropriate documents such as driver’s license, social security card, and veteran’s discharge documents if the loved one has served in the US Armed Forces
  • Make sure that you have all of the information required to file for a death certificate such as places of birth and maiden names of the decedent’s parents
  • Locate insurance documents
  • Determine final disposition, whether it be burial or cremation
  • Select a date, time, and location for a celebration of life service
  • Select merchandise options such as casket, urn, guest book, programs, prayer cards, thank you notes, et al
  • If the loved one is to be buried, select and deliver clothes to the funeral home
  • Select cemetery and purchase burial plot(s) if haven’t already.
  • Select a vault (some states require urns to be in a vault) and head stone
  • Select flowers
  • Write an obituary and determine which newspapers to publish it
  • Collect pictures for a DVD slide show and deliver to the funeral home
  • Meet with clergy to plan the celebration of life, selecting songs, pall bearers, musicians, and plan a funeral luncheon if appropriate
  • Call pall bearers to solicit their availability
  • Notify family and friends of the loved one’s passing
  • Assist with travel arrangements and lodging for out of town families

That is a complicated, time consuming list. I’ve probably forgotten some things. Unless you’ve been through the process, it is overwhelming. In many instances, people who have been through it have forgotten many of the details. So I think it is incumbent upon pastors to strongly encourage their church members to pre-plan their funerals for the following reasons.

First, funeral planning is more than picking songs and pall bearers. Even if you’ve done it before, your experience does not save you very much time. Pre-planning a funeral does not eliminate all of the work, but most of the bullet list can be done in advance.

Second, funeral planning at the moment of need delays the important task at hand–grieving with family and friends. The days between death and burial should be moments of reflection, laughter, tears, and stories. One who waits to grieve until after the funeral service often grieves alone. Time is precious, and the urgent should not outweigh the important.

Third, pre-planning allows your loved one to have tangible input on their final wishes. Otherwise, the family is reliant upon memory and best guesses.

Finally, pre-planning locks in the cost of funerals, guaranteeing and fixing the price. In addition, it also gives the family the flexibility on paying for the funeral in one lump sum or paying over time through the purchase of an insurance policy. It is important to note that funeral homes are not banks. They do not finance funerals at the time of death with payment plans. So it is important for families to know in advance how payment for services will happen.

I hope that you as a pastor will encourage your church members to pre-plan their services. While you’re at it, suggest that they couple the process with other important actions such has having a will, a durable power of attorney, and a DNR if appropriate. Some may exclaim that they’re not ready for these realities, but in the end, they’re not doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for those they love that are left behind.

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The Unheralded Essential Workers

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For nearly a year we have wrestled with the world wide pandemic, and as long as we have witnessed the struggle we have celebrated our health care community. These doctors and nurses have been on the “front lines” of dealing with the most severe cases that require hospitalization. Our health care workers have been honored in various ways and have been highlighted on newscasts with frequency. I join those who celebrate them, for it is deserved.

But there is a vocation among us that has equally labored during the pandemic who remain largely anonymous. They have worked around the clock, dealing with COVID-19 decedents and their families without attention as they go about their essential work. Who, you may ask, is this group? It is our nation’s funeral directors.

People usually don’t think of funeral directors and staff until absolutely necessary. Yet, they remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, bypassing weekends, holidays and paid time off because death doesn’t wear a watch, keep a calendar, or respect anyone’s plans. This is the responsibility that funeral directors signed up for. And in most cases, they serve quietly, faithfully, and for far less remuneration that one might think. For example, the average starting salary for a funeral director in my state (Iowa) is around $36,000 per year.

The pandemic has placed our funeral directors at constant risk. The burden of embalming or cremating a COVID positive case requires directors to utilize the same PPE that any hospital professional would require. Funeral directors also have to creatively help families grieve the loss of their loved one, working within the boundaries of masks, limited gatherings, and the stipulations of local churches that permit funeral services in their houses of worship. Like churches, they master live streaming to allow friends of the departed to attend services virtually. In addition, they stand alone during arrangements to provide counsel, support and understanding, compassionately listening to family members who are in the initial stages of grief.

So what can pastors, churches and church volunteers do to support this important act of service provided by our local funeral homes?

  1. Commit to cooperative service that makes the family’s needs the priority. In other words, endeavor to come alongside the funeral director to provide support for the family through the ongoing process of bereavement from the death notification, through the arrangements, during the funeral and interment, and toward the coming months of follow up. While I personally do not advocate directly participating in the arrangements, the pastor’s availability to answer funeral director’s questions about service arrangements, dates, times, music, etc. is helpful.
  2. Communicate clearly the expectations and regulations your congregation has put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, and then own them. I did a funeral this past summer where the church had established rules about wearing masks and social distancing that the pastor expected the funeral directors to enforce. That was unfair. If you have guidelines in place, communicate them to the funeral director and, at a minimum, help police the behavior of attenders.
  3. Extend hospitality to the funeral directors and their staffs. Make sure they know where restrooms are located. Inform them of your church’s customs and preferences. Let them know where the family gathers prior to the service. And perhaps, offer them a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.
  4. Treat them as the professionals they are. It takes four years of education, a year long internship and a passing grade from the state board of examination for them to be qualified to do the job. They have an incredible amount of experience and are fluent in every faith tradition in your community regardless the size. They know what they are doing, and deserve to be respected accordingly.
  5. Finally, lead your congregations to include them in their pandemic prayer lists alongside first responders and health care professionals. Their work involves incredible exposure and personal risk, and in many cases, will leave the most long lasting impression upon the family.

If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to have a conversation with one or more funeral directors in your community. Ask questions, and learn the stuff you didn’t learn in seminary. It will benefit you as you serve the people in your congregation. If you’re not a pastor, feel free to forward this along to the person who you would ask to attend to your final wishes.

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