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Ministering to the bereaved

1 July 2012 | by Clive Anderson

Ministering to the bereaved

Bereavement touches us all at some time in our lives. So it is surprising that death and bereavement are subjects many avoid, and very often, new pastors and church leaders are not sufficiently well trained to deal with the diverse situations they will face. I was once asked to accompany a Bible college fourth year ministerial trainee to the crematorium, because although he had studied theology to a high academic level he had never been shown how to conduct a cremation and did not know what to do with the buttons. This was ten minutes before the funeral cortege was to arrive!

No two deaths are the same

Every bereavement brings its own unique challenges. The five causes of death are:

  • Natural
  • Accidental
  • Homicidal
  • Suicidal
  • Unexplained

As death affects every age group the pastor or church leader will find themselves having to deal with situations that are not always easy and they will need listening skills, patience, great wisdom and tact.

It is useful for leaders to sit and think, individually, or with others, about the various situations that may be encountered, and how they should be dealt with. The death of a baby or child will present different challenges from the death of a pensioner, but all have to be dealt with in a loving and caring way.

Today we also face the additional challenges of assisted suicide, and how to deal with that difficult subject, not least when it comes to comforting relatives. Another great challenge is cryopreservation. This is the process where people are preserved at very low temperatures, in the hope that sometime in the future cures for diseases will be discovered that will enable the human remains to be resuscitated, cured and live indefinitely. Sometimes in this situation pastors are asked to conduct suitable services of remembrance and obviously this will bring numerous problems to the fore. We cannot shy away from facing up to the changing world; if the gospel is good news then it must be able to be spoken into every situation.

Believers and unbelievers

Ministers are divided on whether or not they should take the funeral of an unbeliever. Some think that if a person has never been to church, then why should the church provide assistance when he has passed away?

I have always looked upon the funeral service as a time of thanksgiving for the life that has been, and a tremendous opportunity and privilege to speak in a most difficult situation and help people when they are at their most vulnerable. Of course we must never take unhelpful advantage of those who mourn, but carefully and lovingly explain the gospel.

It is not unusual to be asked about an unbeliever, ‘where has my loved one gone?’ I answer, ‘I do not know.’ This is not a ‘cop-out’ but a genuine response because the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus’ shows that deathbed confessions can and do happen. So we must never presume to know what has happened to the deceased, only God is the judge and we are His humble servants. What we can and must say at the appropriate time is that there are only two destinies after life, and that faith in the finished work of the Lord Jesus is absolutely essential for eternal life.

Unless the deceased was a believer and had a Bible, I find it is always appreciated when a suitably inscribed Bible is given to the next of kin.

I write the deceased name inside the front cover, and the date of the service and the name of the church fellowship that I represent. I also enclose a sympathy card and place my business card inside it, so that I can be contacted if and when I am needed.

In my experience, it is best to give one with Bible helps in, and I always let the relatives know where they are located in the Bible. It has been good to hear how many have used these Bibles.

I always ask the Funeral Director for a written confirmation of the funeral details. This saves me from making foolish mistakes, so I know if it is a cremation or burial. The elimination of stress for the relatives as well as the minister is a thing to be most desired.

Another benefit of having the details is that the address of the next-of-kin is also included. So in the run up to Christmas I send an appropriate card, saying ‘thinking of you’, and offering to meet up if they would like to, as well as details of our Christmas services.

It has been my experience that many do respond. One occasion particularly stands out; from the time I was a pastor in South London. Our speaker at the midweek Carol service was Bernard Lewis, on furlough from Papua New Guinea (now Pastor of Emmanuel Newport). I had invited a number of relatives to come from funerals during the previous year, and God graciously used Bernard’s ministry to help, challenge and comfort those who came along to that service. Friendships and contacts were not only built up but also maintained.

I should not feel this way

The loss of a loved one or someone close brings many reactions even in Christian believers. Pain, anguish, sorrow and despair can be keenly felt, and the affect on a person’s life should not be underestimated.

Also, we should not be surprised if the surviving spouse or relative does not seem to go through an extended time of mourning. My mother had been very unwell for many years and my father was her chief carer. When she went to glory, Dad was naturally sad, but confessed to me he was having a guilt trip because although he missed mum he had now been released from the burden of getting up several times a night to minister to her needs as well as all the other things he did for her. He was given a new lease of life, and my sister joined me in assuring him that we thought it was great he was now able to enjoy life in a new way. If you minister in a similar situation then do not be too hard on someone if he does not seem to experience the normal grieving experience.

It is never easy

Ministering to those who have been bereaved is not an easy thing to do, but we of all people have a glorious hope. The wonder of Easter should always be at the forefront of our minds. Jesus died to bear God’s wrath on our behalf and rose again to give us a hope and a future. Thanks be to God.


Concerned that there was little in the way of literature that could be given to anyone when a death occurred, three colleagues and I wrote ‘A Help in Grief’; it has been favorably received by those who deal with the bereaved as part of their job. In it Christianity is presented with a light touch, because we see the book being used as a link in a chain for ongoing communications and opportunities. If it were overtly ‘Christian’, then sadly many would not touch the publication.

Clive Anderson is the pastor of the Butts Church in Alton, Hampshire and is the author of several books.