Typically, the graveside service is a time of bringing the body to the cemetery for burial after the funeral service. The graveside (or committal) service is usually less attended than the actual funeral and sometimes is reserved for family only. In the case of a graveside service following a funeral service, it is best to keep it short. The family has spent a long time either at the church or the funeral home by this point. You may choose to follow in the processional of cars from the church or funeral home to the cemetery or you may choose to drive to the cemetery ahead of the processional. Either way, you need to be sure that you are by the graveside when the casket is carried to its position. You should also be careful to stand at the head of the casket when making your remarks. All bodies are buried facing the east, so you can move to the west end of the casket or simply ask the funeral director to clarify which end is the head. This position is one of respect. You should use a brief passage of Scripture at the graveside. There are numerous texts appropriate for this occasion. Possible Biblical themes would be resurrection, the second coming of Jesus, Jesus’ comfort of Martha and Mary after the death of Lazarus, certain Psalms, or passages dealing with Jesus’ triumph over death. Before you begin, be sure to check with the funeral director that everyone is present for the graveside service, so you don’t start before everyone has the opportunity to come to the graveside. A good approach is to read your selected passage, say a few brief words applying the text to the deceased, offer a brief prayer, and go speak to the family members before you leave. Do not be in a hurry to leave when speaking to the family but also be careful to not monopolize their time because others want to speak to the family as well.
Some who have served in the military will receive military honors as part of the graveside service. Communication with the funeral director is vital in this case. He or she can help coordinate the flow of events at the cemetery. The Honor Guard may want to go first before you share and allow you to bring the service to a close. Other times the military personnel performing the honors ceremony may want to go last and conclude the service with the presentation of the folded flag. You, as pastor, need to be flexible at this point and respect the wishes of the family, military Honor Guard, and the funeral director. If offered a choice, you can express your preference. Typically, military honors include, at the very minimum, the folding of the American flag and its presentation to the next of kin. Depending on the deceased’s military career, the Honor Guard may play Taps and possibly give a salute of firing weapons. It is important for you to remain during the military honors (if you go first and have finished your duties, do not leave before the conclusion of the military honors). You need to stand at attention and respect the ceremony honoring the one who served his or her country.
Some families request a graveside-only service in lieu of a full funeral service followed by a graveside. In this case, you need to have clear communication with the family of the deceased and with the funeral director as to expectations. Likely a graveside-only service will be longer than one following a full funeral service elsewhere. The family may request music, someone to sing, read a poem, or some may want to share some personal thoughts about the one who has passed away. Visiting with the family before the graveside service will provide the opportunity to clarify expectations, people involved, and any other elements they may desire. It is completely appropriate to discuss with the family as to their expectations of the length of a graveside-only service.
Most graveside services are held outdoors in a cemetery. You need to be aware of the weather conditions and their effect on the people attending the service. If it is extremely hot, you need to keep the service as short as possible. If it is extremely cold, be aware of the uncomfortable position of sitting through the service and feeling the effects of the cold. Most families will not be upset with you for cutting a service short, but they will remember if you made it last too long.
As with any aspect of pastoral ministry, it is vital to pray about every passage you choose and every word you say. Grief has a powerful impact in the lives of people and our job is to bring as much comfort, hope, and peace as we can through the power of God’s Word and his Spirit.
Dr. Jeff Moore is the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church Altus.