A pastor writes and asks, “Have you personally conducted funerals for non-Christians? If not, would you? And if you did, what would be your thought in doing it, and how would that funeral be tailored differently from a funeral for a believer?”
I have conducted funerals for non-Christians. I have, but not many. When I came to Bethlehem, I made a decision just because of priorities my here — I wouldn’t encourage every pastor to make this decision. I didn’t encourage the funeral homes in the area to look to me as a burying pastor. A lot of people come to funeral homes who don’t know anything about the church and they don't know how to have a funeral and they’re just looking to some person to help them.
Conduct the Funeral as a Christian Pastor
Now others on our staff have done that explicitly. They make themselves available and make it a ministry to unbelievers to do funerals. Now I have done some, and what I do is first make sure the family knows I am a Christian pastor.
I am a Christian pastor, so if you want me to do it, I am going to speak from the Scriptures, I am going to talk about the good news of Jesus Christ, and I am going to speak as a Christian. So don't ask me to be generic, because that is not my job. I am not a generic professional burying parson. I am a Christian herald of the good news. So if you want me to do that, I will do it.
And so my approach in the few that I have done has been that I don’t talk about the person who is dead. I talk to the living. I talk about the gospel. I talk of God’s sufficiency to help them in their crisis, because what they are experiencing right now is that they have just experienced a huge loss and God has something to say to them about their need.
Candid Honesty in Burying Unbelievers
Piper: “When I bury non-Christians, I don’t speak to the dead. I speak good news to the living.”
Now there have been some times where the deceased being an unbeliever was elephant in the room, you might say. I have one particular person in mind. It was the unbelieving brother of a Christian. And everybody in the room knew he was an unbeliever and they are wondering: What do I think? What am I going to say? And there were only a handful of people there, and so I gathered them around the coffin at the end. There were about 12 people gathered around the coffin, mainly older folks, and he was a brother who was just militantly anti-Christian.
And I said to them, just looking them right in the eyes, “Now, we are all aware that Henry was not a believer. And we know there is no hope for unbelievers beyond the grave.” And I let that sink in, and then I said two other things that I think are always fitting to say. I looked at his sister and said, “We don’t know. We don’t know how Henry dealt with the living God in the last minutes of his life. And therefore we don’t pass final sentence at this moment on this man’s soul.
What we do know is ‘the judge of all the earth will do right’ (Genesis 18:25).” And that is probably the truth that I would end on in almost any unbelieving funeral where people are aware that this person may well be in hell today. We close by saying, “God will always do what is right, and we will approve what he does.”