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Planning a Meaningful Service in Times of Grief

By Rev. Patricia D. Brown, MDiv, PhD

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In times of grief, we turn to the church to seek solace in services and ceremonies that help us grieve our loss, honor our loved ones, and feel held by God. Funerals, memorials, remembrances, and graveside services are ways we gather to remember the person who died. These moments are a sacred, memorable, and meaningful chance to mourn while offering and receiving comfort and support from others. Even under the best circumstances, arranging a service can be an emotional, and sometimes exhausting, process.

These moments are a sacred, memorable, and meaningful chance to mourn while offering and receiving comfort and support from others.

The time you have to plan a service depends on when you are doing it. Is it before death -- perhaps planning for yourself or with someone with a life-limiting illness -- or is it immediately after a death? The best scenario is when there has been frank talk with a pastor, trusted friend, or relative before the death.

Often, this is not the case. Instead, the pastor and family members must make these decisions.

Rev Patricia Brown
Rev. Patricia D. Brown, MDiv, PhD

In the solemn moments of bidding farewell to a loved one at a funeral, we find ourselves reflecting on that individual’s journey in life, especially how that journey has been marked by faith. For the Christian community, this journey began long before the final goodbye. It started at the baptismal font.

The Christian funeral is intricately connected to the baptismal service. The sanctuary baptismal font reminds us of this profound connection. Just as our dear departed one was once welcomed into the embrace of the church through baptism, so now the church gathers to bid that person farewell. In baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised to walk in the newness of life—a promise we cling to as we commend our loved one into God’s care.

At baptism, our loved one (perhaps as an infant) was adorned in white, symbolizing new life in Christ. Many congregations are reinstituting the traditional white funeral pall, a white cloth that is draped over the casket or urn. The United Methodist Service of Death and Resurrection says, “As in baptism (Name) put on Christ, so in Christ may (Name) be clothed with glory.” Using the same pall for all funerals symbolizes that everyone is equal before God. Once again clothed in white, the loved one may be placed at or near the baptismal font. The Christ Candle may be lit, a beacon of hope amid our sorrow, signifying the light of our faith.

Hymns and songs accompanied our loved one’s entry into the Christian community at baptism. With the help of your pastor, choose songs, scriptures, and prayers for the funeral that reflect the unique life and personality of the individual.

At the end of the service, as we travel the final miles to the burial site, we are reminded of the journey we have shared -- the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and challenges. Just as our loved one was once cradled in the arms of their family at baptism, we who loved and cherished that person in life, carry him/her to their final resting place.

With the Service of Death and Resurrection, our loved one’s baptismal journey reaches its completion. In this moment of farewell, we affirm the truth of our faith—that death does not sever our bond with our loved one, but transforms it. We find comfort in the unwavering trustworthiness of God, even in the face of death. And though our hearts may ache with the pain of separation, we take comfort in the assurance that our loved one is now at peace, surrounded by the communion of saints, cradled in the arms of God.

If you are considering planning a service for yourself, or you are making decisions for another, keep these ideas in mind.

  1. Contact the pastor and people you trust to help you plan and work through the process.
  2. Pin down principal players, date, time, and budget, and don’t let your emotions carry you into debts you’ll regret later.
  3. Reserve the church sanctuary and, if needed, the social hall.
  4. Review the “Service of Death and Resurrection” in the United Methodist Hymnal and choose hymns, songs, and scriptures that reflect the unique life and personality of the person.
  5. Watch your time. Keep the service to 30 – 45 minutes, especially if family members and friends wish to speak. Any longer can feel like an eternity and will be hard for grieving friends and family to navigate.
  6. Encourage participation from friends and family. Invite them to contribute through music, readings, or personal anecdotes. Some prefer to write memories on cards or share them in person at a fellowship time following the service.

For further reflection, see “A Service of Death and Resurrection,” and Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral by Thomas G. Long.


The Rev. Dr. Patricia D. Brown is a United Methodist elder currently serving as Executive Director of Spiritworks. Inc., in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Tricia uses her experience (service in seven churches and as GBGM Executive Secretary of Mission Evangelism, Director of Spiritual Formation of the Central Pennsylvania and Florida Conferences, and Associate Professor of Seattle Pacific University) and gifts to facilitate workshops and retreats based on her eight published books. The work closest to her heart is creating a sacred space where the Spirit can help others find peace, purpose, and contentment.

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