One of my young pastor friends called as he prepared for his first funeral. This is simply insight I’ve gained from others as well as the experience and privilege of helping folks as they walk through the shadow of death.
How to Bury a Country Man
“The thing about common sense is that it ain’t common, Son.”
–Erik Pederson (whom we recently buried in his jeans and khaki shirt.)
The funeral director pulled me to the side. “We’ve got everything set up. The last song before you speak is a Johnny Cash song. I listened to it and it should be just right.”
I was already nervous. This was a difficult service—a tragic death, a divorced family attempting to walk together through their sudden shock and loss. It was now my job to find the comforting words to guide these folks I loved.
Just before I spoke, the CD began with the first notes of “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” It struck a chord of fear in my heart, because I knew the song, and it wasn’t Johnny Cash. It was another Johnny—Johnny Paycheck, and he was launching into the opening lines of “The Outlaw’s Prayer.”
It’s a talking song about being thrown out of a downtown Ft. Worth church for showing up in jeans, a cowboy hat, and boots. It’s replete with his sitting on the sidewalk and having a long talk with Jesus. Johnny uses several mild expletives complaining about his treatment in the house of the Lord.
It isn’t exactly the perfect song to go before a funeral sermon.
I thought: how in the world am I going to tie this together?
As I always do before preaching, I asked Jesus to help me. Then as Paycheck “signed off” and the song ended, I made my way to the podium.
“Folks, I’ve spoken at many funerals, but never after a Johnny Paycheck song, but that’s all right. I want to talk about Jesus, and I want to remind you that the ground at the foot of the cross where Jesus died is level.
Johnny Paycheck is completely welcome to come there—and so is every man and woman in this room today.”
That’s what I want to talk about here: the uniqueness of rural funerals and how to lead them.
Not just any funerals, but country funerals.
I’m not an expert on how they conduct funerals in other parts of the country, but I’ve been part of dozens of Southern funerals. Funerals where we lovingly laid to rest country men—and country women.
This writing comes after a weekend call from a younger pastor friend. He’d been called to officiate at the service for a close friend’s sister. We talked about some things to think about that I’ve listed below for you.
As I start, I want to confess: I’m not an ordained minister and have no official theological training. Most of what I’ve learned on country funerals is from watching and listening. I encourage all young ministers to read and learn all they can. There are excellent books and resources on ministering to families at the time of death.
I firmly believe there is no greater privilege and responsibility than to be called on by a family to help bury their loved one. Here are some tidbits to guide you.
1. Above all, spend time with the family. Nothing replaces being present. You don’t even have to say flowery words. Honestly, they won’t remember many things you say, but will never forget the gift of your presence.
This begins with the first viewing by the family.
In our part of Louisiana, this is always an hour before public viewing.
It is the family’s first viewing of their loved one in a casket. It is an emotional and tender time. Whether the loved one has been ill for months or died suddenly, it is a difficult moment for the family.
Get there early and pray with them as a group, then go in and be present.
Don’t feel as if you must say a great deal. Honestly answer their questions even if the answer is “I don’t know.” Let your words be few, yet real. The old Irish always said at their wakes, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’
That says a great deal. Telling people “I love you and I’m praying for you” is what they need to hear and feel.
During the time of the wake and visitation, spend time with the family. It will provide an opportunity for them to share stories and reminisce. This is especially important if you didn’t know the deceased.
I often ask, “Tell me what you would like said about your daddy?”
They’ll open up and supply fine stories to share.
Here’s an example: A few years ago, I helped with the funeral of one of Dry Creek’s most beloved senior adults, ‘Uncle Rob’ McCracken.
While preparing for the service, his family told this story:
Uncle Rob lived in South Carolina most of his life. When he and his wife Iola moved to Louisiana, they continued returning for his yearly class reunions.
When he missed a few years because of health, his classmates mistakenly received word of his death. They were saddened at the loss of one of their favorite classmates.
About five years after the report of his demise, Uncle Rob returned for a reunion. When he walked into the meeting room, one of the women yelled out, “My goodness, Robbie McCracken done come back from the dead!”
At Uncle Rob’s funeral, I related this story and everyone laughed loudly. Then I added, “Now some folks believe Robbie McCracken is dead, but I want you to know he is more alive now than he’s ever been. He’s with Jesus and Jesus himself said,
“I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, though he dies, he shall live again. He that believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Just like Martha and Mary told Jesus that day at the grave of their brother Lazarus. “I believe you Jesus. I believe you.”
2. Plan the service. Most of the time, the family will tell you how they’d like the service conducted—what songs and when, who reads the obituary, etc. Part of our job is to write down an outline of the service, if no one else has. Make copies for the musicians, funeral directors, other speakers, pallbearers. Make sure everyone is on the same page. There is nothing more disconcerting than blank stares when no one knows what is next.
3. Before going in to the service, gather the pallbearers and other speakers and pray. The pallbearers are often grandsons, nephews, or close friends. It’s a tender time for them, so gather them in a circle and pray with and for them, as well as the family.
4. Before walking in, make sure your coat is buttoned and your fly is zipped. This may not sound important, but I’ve seen it ignored, and “it ain’t a pretty sight.”
5. If you are reading the obituary, know how to pronounce every name and double check every detail with an informed family member.
Country folk will correct you from the pew if you mispronounce “Aunt Minerva’s” name.
It is a sign of courtesy to be prepared for this.
Also in your sermon notes, write the name of the deceased with a black marker at the top of the page.
I’ve seen ministers forget the deceased’s name or mispronounce it, which usually brings a loud correction from the next of kin and kills the spirit of the service.
6. When you walk to the podium to speak, draw a mental box around the immediate family and speak to them. Block out the crowd, the location, the flowers.
It’s just you, the family, and the body of their loved one.
The family is the ones who matter most and by speaking directly to them, you’re ministering to everyone present.
7. Keep the content of your message simple: You’re there to lift up Jesus and remind all present that He is the only way to Heaven.
You can never go wrong in lifting Him up. Use scriptures throughout your message—familiar scriptures that the grieving folks have heard all of their life take on a full and new meaning at this time.
The Holy Spirit will take those promises from the Bible and speak into the hearts of those present.
Concerning the spiritual condition of the man or woman you are burying: our job is not to preach them into Heaven or send them into hell. We are to clearly share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Also, in the case of every person who has lived, their life has dignity and their funeral is a time to celebrate that life. In the case of country folks, this is done best through stories. That’s why spending time with the family is so essential. I ask, “If you were standing up there tomorrow, what would you say? What story do you think describes your mother the best?”
8. Pray earnestly aloud. Pray from your heart, asking God to comfort these folks.
9. With the end of the service, your job is not finished. In fact, your presence and love during the closing is just as important.
Recently a funeral director asked me, “Will this service be a KJV or NIV?”
I didn’t understand so he explained: “The old way of ending a service—what we call the King James service—is to reopen the casket and allow those present to file by in ‘paying their last respects.’ ”
He continued, “More and more, families are requesting that the coffin remain closed and the attendees file out the back. We call that a NIV service.”
Then he added, “There’s one more we call the New King James—or NKJV—the coffin remains closed but the folks file by and express their concern to the family.”
Most Dry Creek funerals are “KJV.” My pastor, a young man from North Georgia says it’s never done like back home, but it’s the way it’s done in the Louisiana piney woods.
The directors open the casket and the gathered mourners, beginning at the back of the building, file by. As a pastor, you’ll stand beside the casket. Many folks will give you a nod as they pass, some will hug you, or offer a word of thanks. Most will respectfully stop at the casket and say goodbye in gestures or words.
Usually many of those filing by will hug or speak to the family members on the front pew. This part of the service can take a good amount of time. I always remind myself that this is a very necessary part of receiving closure—for everyone present.
Then as the last passerby exits, it’s time for the family to say goodbye. Once again, this cannot be rushed and is a sacred time.
When I speak at funerals, I’m able to keep my emotions in check.
However when the family members come to the casket for that final look, I lose all composure. As I watch a teenage granddaughter place her head on PaPaw’s chest weeping on his freshly starched overalls, I weep with her.
As two sons steady their old mother and she looks for the last time on this earth at the face of her husband of sixty years, I weep. It’s not a put on or for show.
It comes from my heart.
I once was ashamed of this, but have come to realize that sharing ‘the gift of tears’ with folks is important.
When the last family member has left, your job is to stand there as the directors close the casket, and escort the body to the hearse.
10. Let me be brief on the cemetery service: be brief. This is not the time to preach or say a great deal. Scripture, prayer, and your concern are all that is needed at this time.
11. Finally, don’t rush away from the cemetery. Linger and hug on grandchildren and kiss older ladies on the cheek. They are now your family and you are theirs. When you help a family bury a country man—or country woman—you become linked at the heart. And the years and miles will not diminish the bond you share.
I always try to return to John 11 when Jesus visits the tomb of his friend Lazarus. That chapter is so full of Jesus’ wisdom for leading a family or group through grief. The words of Isaiah the coming Savior says it clearly: “. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
As followers of that same Savior named Jesus, we are called to be well acquainted with grief. It allows us to lock hearts with those hurting and grieving.
It’s a calling.
It is an honor.
It’s a privilege.
With God’s help, you will do well.