Debunked: What Do I Say at a Funeral?
By Jake Sletten
We all do it. Whenever someone is in pain, we want to say something to help them with that pain. We know it won’t make the pain go away, but we want to communicate that we care. When we are talking to someone whose loved one has died, we feel a need to want to explain that which is unexplainable. So we say things like, "God has a plan." When someone is in a season of grief, we think that telling them things like, "God has a reason for everything," will somehow help. Perhaps, if the person understands that God has a reason for everything then the pain will, at the very least, make sense which--somehow--is supposed to make the grief more bearable.
Unfortunately, in the well-intentioned process of trying to be a good neighbor to people who are suffering with grief, we sometimes trip over ourselves. Instead of providing comfort, we either give false hope, or we try to explain something that God does not give us to explain.
Let’s identify some things we should NOT say, and instead, give alternatives rooted in the Gospel.
What not to say. . .
"God has a plan." Simply put: Unless you know what God's plan is for this particular person at that particular moment (which, by the way, none of us do), then this is not in any way helpful to someone who is grieving. This is especially unwise to say at the time of death. To tell the bereaved that "God has a plan" is basically telling them that God planned for their loved one to die, which we know from Scripture is not true at all! Death was never ultimately in God's plan. We live in this fallen world, so death seems natural. Yet see how Jesus was overcome with grief and weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus in John 11:35.
"God has a reason for everything." This is similar to the one above, but not quite the same. Unless God has somehow enlightened you with His reasons for anything He does, this comment is better left unsaid, no matter the situation. The danger is this: what happens to the person’s faith in God (or potential faith!) when the "reasons" for their grief are not immediately apparent? Suddenly, they are left with no explanation for something they were told there should be reasons for. It's not a short distance to go from sorrow to anger at God. "If God has reasons, why doesn’t He tell me? He took away my wife/husband/son/daughter/loved one and for what? Because He has 'reasons?'"
"They’re better off." So, you're saying that the deceased is better off dead instead of being alive? To be sure, we ultimately look forward to the new heavens and the new earth. To be sure, we await a day when there is no more mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). To be sure, life can be really really hard on this side of heaven. But if you tell the bereaved that their loved one is "better off" being dead, you might as well have told them their loved one's life had no meaning or purpose when they were alive. That their life really wasn't all that important. Yikes! Of course, no well-intentioned person would MEAN these things by this comment, but those are the inevitable conclusions.
"You need to be strong for ___________ ." Friends, it's okay to cry when we are grieving. It's definitely okay to cry over the death of a loved one. Somewhere in our particular culture we were given this idea that at the time of grief we need to "be strong" for other people. Being strong means things like not crying, telling people that we are okay, or telling ourselves or others to "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." I've never understood this. If Jesus cried at the death of His friend, and Jesus is the most holy and perfect human to ever walk the earth, then why can't we cry, too?
What to say. . .
"God is with you." Jesus is, after all, Immanuel, God with us! Psalm 34:18 promises that God is near to the brokenhearted!
"I don’t know why this happened." Yes, it’s okay to say that you don't know! Instead, point them to the promise of the resurrection that is for all believers in Christ. He is risen!
"I am praying for you." To know that someone out there cares about us enough to go the Lord in prayer on our behalf is a source of tremendous comfort! We are promised this in Psalm 55:17: "Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice." In fact, if the person is amenable to it, offer to pray for them at that exact moment!
"I am here for you." Grief can be a very lonely season to go through. We sometimes think that no one else knows what we’'e dealing with. But the truth is, however, that the body of Christ exists for the very purpose of "bearing with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2)! We also have a very great high priest, Christ Himself, who is not "unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are…" (Hebrews 4:15).
This is an unmistakable truth: As Christians, only we have the healing balm for the grieving and bereaved: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. . .literally, the Good News about Christ crucified and resurrected for all. It's the Good News that death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). And it's the Good News that God in Christ Jesus has PROMISED to be with you always to the very end of time itself (Matthew 28:20).
Rev. Jake Sletten is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and School in Freistatt, MO. He thinks the mission of Higher Things is exciting: to help raise up new generations of believers for the Gospel. He is husband to Courtney, and dad to MJ, Bradley, and Emma. He loves going on dates with his wife, grilling on his Weber, coaching his kids' basketball teams, watching basketball (mainly his Los Angeles Clippers), and reading books about dragons.
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