As an ordained clergywoman in the United Church of Christ, I have officiated at so many funerals I’ve lost count, and I’ve been writing funeral sermons for more than ten years.
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Funerals, or memorial service, and even graveside services, are sacred spaces for families and friends to gather in community with each other to remember, honor, and grieve together. These services can be a great comfort for grieving people.
If you have been asked to write a funeral sermon, or in some communities, it can also be called a eulogy, to remember a friend, family neighbor, or colleague, it is a sacred act. Writing and subsequently, giving a eulogy can be a great way to honor a loved one that has died, and provide some comfort to you and their family as well.
Here are ten tips to get you started.
COVID-19 tip: If you're officiating a virtual Christian funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still share your sermon with your online guests. Coordinate with your planning team and ensure you have the right mics and speakers to accommodate your guests.
Tips to Start Writing and Planning a Funeral Sermon
Public speaking does not come easily to everyone, even if a job requires it as part of its day-to-day tasks. With many public speaking opportunities, it is important to prepare. However, there are many different ways to do so.
If you are tasked with writing a funeral sermon or eulogy, make sure to do some amount of preparation, as you may encounter some obstacles on the day of the funeral.
1. Be committed
This is not the time to put off writing your sermon until the morning of the service, or on your way to the funeral. Start thinking about writing the sermon at least a week out.
2. Be intentional
You may want to talk with friends and family of the deceased about their memories. This is a great way to create a community around the service and help you feel like you are not in this alone.
3. Write from your heart
You want to comfort the people gathered, but this is also a time for you, the sermon writer, to be comforted too.
Sharing memories and events that defined the character of the one you are honoring are great ways to start a funeral sermon. I find this to be especially moving when stories of hardship, sacrifice, and resiliency are shared.
4. Include poetry and music
Including words or songs from others in your funeral sermon can be “meaning-making.” In addition, quoting the deceased loved one’s favorite poems or lyrics or your own can help illustrate a life well-lived.
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5. Write a script
Don’t think you can speak spontaneously off the cuff for your sermon. The most important thing is to practice, and turn it into a script.
Use note cards to help add emphasis if you need it. If you speak on the fly, you may forget important details and lose your focus. When giving a sermon, it is safe to say that people are depending on you.
6. Keep your sermon about 12-15 minutes long
An ideal amount of time for a funeral is about an hour (I’ve gone longer, and I’ve gone shorter), but be mindful about going too long.
There is a lot to creating a funeral, and while your part is significant, there are many moving parts in the memorial service program that you may not know about. Make sure to check with the funeral director or the designated family member about timing.
Practice your sermon out loud. Get your voice inflections and words flowing by speaking from your script. If speaking before a crowd is something new to you, practicing in front of a mirror can be helpful or recording it on your phone to hear it over again.
Practicing may also help you keep your tears of grief to a minimum. But do be prepared to cry. Remember to pack your script in a small three-ring binder or a folder, or write it out on a series of note cards.
8. Get there early
Whether the service is at a church, a funeral home, a restaurant, a bar, a home, or at a grave, plan to show up at least an hour beforehand.
Get familiar with the space, and where you will stand if there is a podium and microphone. Greet the grieving. Before the funeral starts, you may want to walk away from people to ground yourself in some deep breathing, or whatever may be your practice of quiet gathering.
9. Bring tissues, breath mints, and a bottle of water
I like to pack a little kit that I travel with for sacred gatherings such as these that I leave in my car.
These items prove to be helpful especially when public speaking. Your mouth may get dry and you may tear up, so plan ahead.
10. Be gracious
People may come up afterward and thank you for your comforting words. I once had someone tell me that I had “hit the ball out of the park” with a funeral sermon! While those may not be my words of gratitude, be prepared for people who will be grateful.
Popular Types of Funeral Sermon Themes
There are probably dozens of themes that have been used in funeral sermon and funeral eulogies, but here are a few that I have used, heard about, and have experienced as someone sitting in the pew or standing at the grave.
Poetry: I once heard a sermon of about 15 minutes of the deceased favorite poems. I was spellbound because it told me so much about who she was and what moved her. The entire funeral service was hearing her favorite poems. We were told that her mother had requested the same kind of service, of having her favorite poems spoken when she died.
Obituary: Reading an obituary is a way to start a funeral sermon and helps set the tone of life review. This can be helpful if the stories you will be sharing span the lifetime of a friendship.
Religious: There are lots of stories in many traditions and faiths about death, dying, grief, and loss. If the one you are honoring and remembering found strength in a sacred text, use them. If not, don’t. Using someone’s favorite sacred text can also be a theme to use in writing a eulogy.
Career: I once was at a funeral, and the eulogy was from three colleagues of the one who had died. Each one of the colleagues spoke about a significant aspect of her leadership, her gifts of managing people, and the wonderful work events she hosted.
She was completely dedicated to the staff she supervised. It was a sweet and tender way of telling her story to so many gathered who also worked with her.
Music: Music is a wonderful way to tell the story of someone loved. Telling the stories of their favorite music, the meaning of the music, especially if they were a musician, can be especially meaningful. There is something special about hearing the story of the beginning of the creative artistic spirit that can be especially touching.
Military service: I have been to services where the eulogy was devoted to the stories of a beloved’s military service. The stories that were spoken--either by veterans who served with them about their courage and bravery or by their children--were quite moving.
Photographs: This is a lovely way to tell the story of someone’s life, especially if the location of the service has technology that can run a slide show.
This is a wonderful way to illustrate a life well-lived, especially when the folks gathered have known someone in the latter part of their life and have never seen childhood or family photos.
Outdoors: This kind of eulogy can be especially meaningful when it comes to someone who found peace and the sacred in the wilderness, hiking, and adventuring.
Many people discover their spirituality in climbing mountains, exploring trails, swimming in lakes, oceans, rivers, and waterways; camping or backpacking, Telling the stories of meaning-making for someone who loved the wilderness is a theme I’ve heard many times.
The journey of dying: I was recently at service where someone had died of Alzheimer’s disease. The family chose to tell the story of his life using the before and after diagnosis as a cornerstone of his life story. It was incredibly moving.
Pre-planning your funeral sermon or eulogy: It is never too early to plan and write our funerals. If you are one of the folks who has written your funeral, and have given it to your family, what a gift it will be to those left behind.
People who write their own funerals select the music, what sacred text should be spoken, and who would do their funeral sermon. Honoring someone’s wishes like this is truly a gift.
Humor: Recounting a humorous memory can break the tension at a funeral. I asked my favorite funeral directors of a memorable eulogy that they have experienced. They quickly referenced a service where the eulogy was given by a nephew for his aunt and the way he described her life in fun and engaging ways.
Telling her story about her travels through these humorous tales was a delight. After the eulogy, people applauded in a Catholic Church! These funeral directors had never heard anyone applaud at a funeral mass!
Just a side note, using humor in a eulogy can sometimes backfire, and this can happen with inappropriate jokes and off-color humor.
Food: I love to hear about favorite food in eulogies! These are my favorites because preparing and eating food is such a universal theme, and storytelling about favorite foods and memorable dishes can be incredibly delicious.
I once spoke about the favorite Christmas cookies that were made by the one whose life we were celebrating. Food is meaningful, and for some, making and giving away food is one way to demonstrate love. Many people came up to me after the service to share what cookies they had received at Christmas time by this extraordinary baker and candy maker.
Writing and Giving a Funeral Sermon with Heart
You have been asked to be part of a sacred experience in honoring and remembering someone at a time, which can be emotional, difficult, or even down-right hard. Whatever emotions come up, know that you will be of comfort to those who have gathered at a funeral. A community that gathers together for a funeral is important, and it answers a basic need--to be together with one another.
Finally, it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway…sometimes the way someone dies can make writing and speaking a eulogy particularly difficult. It takes great sensitivity and compassion to speak a eulogy for a baby, a teenager, a young person, and for people who died from an accident or very suddenly. For those have been asked, it is indeed a gift of comfort that you will bring to so many.
Above all, remember that giving a funeral sermon is about sharing love and giving honor to those who have died.