Leading Memorial Services for Your Own Loved Ones

Clergy share their experiences leading funerals for family


As vaccines become more available and gathering restrictions loosen, clergy calendars are going to fill up with the funeral and memorial services that were postponed. It is likely that many clergy will be asked to officiate for a friend or loved one. What will you do? In this article, several colleagues join me to offer their advice and stories regarding the joys and pitfalls of such services.  

Decide now if you are willing to officiate for family or friends

I will never forget when my Grandma asked me if I would “do her funeral.” I did not answer right away, but eventually I agreed. Luckily, there were many years between the request and her death. By then, I had officiated many services, and doing the work of putting together a service felt right. It was what I knew she wanted, and it felt good to be fulfilling her wishes.   

When her best friend’s mother died, the Reverend Canon Maria Bergius, Gothenberg Cathedral, offered to lead the service. “I loved being able to do it, and I know it meant so much to my friend and all of her family, and I don’t regret it at all. [It was] probably one of the best funerals I’ve officiated. Holy space.”  

However, not everyone feels the same way. One colleague decided she would never officiate for family again, after leading two services as a seminary student. “It was just too hard to do and I felt like I could not really grieve.”   

Due to a last-minute change because of Covid, Rev. Dana Neuhauser, an ordained Deacon in The United Methodist Church, officiated her father’s graveside service for the family. “It was a blessing and the worst thing all at once; a blessing to do something meaningful for the family for that time of grief. For sure someone else has to do my mother’s.”  

The Rev. Sarah Moore who serves in The United Reformed Church in Scotland questions if it is ethical for clergy to preside over family members’ services. She asserts, “we get all bothered (rightly, for the most part) about how we shouldn’t date or have close friendships with people in our care; in my opinion, not being pastor/priest for family members or friends is the other side of the same coin.” Similarly, Rev. Sara Irwin, Pastor at Saint John, Carnegie, Pennsylvania, offers, “It’s not just about what you personally feel up to; it is also about what the family members need. They may think they want the ordained person they love, but someone who is external to the system is almost always going to be more pastorally capable.”  

You cannot support other family members as you officiate

Even if you are not close to the deceased, you cannot be pastorally available to all the family members in the same way you are able to be present as just clergy. You also cannot be in two places at once, such as holding a loved one’s hand during the service and be up front leading.  It is helpful to consider who may want or need your physical presence beside them and who will fulfill that role in your place.  My young children were present at my Grandma’s funeral.  I had my husband and my mother in charge of them. 

It is important to designate someone who will care for your needs. As one colleague entered the luncheon after the funeral for her own loved one, a family member stepped in to help care for her. “I genuinely needed it. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted.”  

In order to focus on her family, Episcopal priest Rev. Danae Ashley wrote a liturgy and asked her priest friend to lead it. Writing liturgies and rituals aided her own grief process and allowed her to participate in the service without any responsibilities during it.

“For friends or family, it’s harder to assert my professional expertise (or pastoral authority),” says Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgard of Hamline United Methodist Church. “For example, in my congregation, I rarely allow for open-mic time for sharing, but it is harder to create boundaries with family members or friends.”

It is not just about you

Though you probably have plenty of stories, it is important to include others’ memories as well. Just as you would ask any other family to tell you about their loved one, ask your own family as well. You may be delighted by the stories you hear, and it helps all those who grieve to share and hear stories. Rev. Justin Glenard Lee McCall, a United Methodist clergyperson in Ohio, offers that “every relationship has a perspective to share. Speaking from only your experience may not resonate with the person everyone else knew.”  

“Having another clergy there to lead the liturgy” is helpful, suggests Rev. Deborah Coble, a United Methodist pastor in West Virginia. “Or share the readings with other family members, so that no one feels like you are ‘taking over’ the funeral.” I invited all the grandchildren to participate at my Grandma’s service. I will never forget the power of one of my cousin’s words, as she shared about my Grandma. It was important to me to not be the only voice sharing.

And it is about you; find a separate time to grieve

While some grieving may happen during the service, set aside some time and space for yourself. It could be before, after, or both. The ritual of a service aids in the grieving process. Leading and thinking about all the parts of the service requires a different presence than sitting in a pew. 

During the committal for one of her grandparents, one pastor became emotional part way through and had to pause. After, a family member who is also a psychologist pulled her aside and said, “it’s not just OK that you got teary. It was completely appropriate. I think pastors should sometimes be a little bit more real with their emotions when they’re leading us.”

Similarly, the Rev. Kimberly Bohan, a Rector in the Church of England, shared about leading her father’s funeral. “It took every scrap of experience and professionalism I could muster. But I think what made it possible was having two friends doing the music. The hour before, we were the only three in the sanctuary, and as they rehearsed, I sobbed and sobbed.  Then I was ready to do what I had to do.”   Another colleague suggested that after leading a service she “felt like [she] was three steps behind in the grieving process. The service offered the closure and processing that funerals do, but because I was on I did not have the same time and space to process. That said, the privilege vastly outweighed that delay in grief, and I would do it again.” Her experience resonates with me. I felt like I had to take some time apart in the days following my Grandma’s service to do my own grief work.

Reflections for your Ministry

What have you learned in officiating services?  What will you do again, and what changes do you want to make in the future? It is evident from these shared experiences that no one scenario or situation mirrors another. Rather, it is the thoughtful and inquisitive hearts of those who lead who strike this delicate balance of caring simultaneously for church and family to create a meaningful experience for everyone. Take some time now to write out your thoughts about what you will say, before you are asked.

  • Tiffany McDonald

    Rev. Tiffany McDonald is an Ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church. She is currently on family leave. Tiffany lives in Minnesota with her husband and two daughters. She blogs at redheadedrev.org.

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