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Is it ever ok to speak ill of the dead? and some reflections on funerals – BBC Radio Scotland

“Could you come on the show and talk about celebrity funerals – especially Barry Elliott of the Chuckle brothers”  was one of the strangest requests I’ve ever had from the BBC.  This is the resultant discussion.

downloadThe story is that the MSP Trish Marwick had tweeted a derogatory comment about the Chuckle brothers after the death of one of them (Barry) in which she stated that she couldn’t stand them.  The discussion was brief but allowed me to reflect on the following…

Funerals have become light-hearted and trivialised.  Death is a serious business.  It is the last enemy and it is the gateway into eternity.  It is also an incredible loss (usually) for those who are left behind.  To try to turn it into a comedy show or an entertainment is disrespectful to the both the dead and the living.

Far too much pressure is put on families to make a show, when they should be given space to mourn.

There is too much dishonesty at funerals.  I remember one (evangelical) minister who buried everyone in the community in exactly the same way – no matter how they had lived or what they had believed.  Everyone was going to heaven.  The paradox of this is that this is not what he preached in the normal services, but it is what was heard at funerals….and far more people came to the funerals than they did to his sermons!  Tied in with this is the attempt as a minister to portray yourself as a best friend of the deceased – when you hardly knew him!

Sometimes we know dreadful things about the people we bury and it is not appropriate to say that in public.  But neither should we lie and pretend that they were something other than we knew them to be.

On the other hand I know another evangelical minister who decided to announce that a particular young man who had died a tragic death was in hell and that everyone else would be joining him there unless they repented.  It was crass, arrogant, harmful and wrong.  We don’t know how the Lord has worked in someones life.   As it happens I knew that young man and he had once come to me in the dead of night to ask about Jesus and his own spiritual condition.  Who knows what the Lord may have done?   Doubtless the minister thought he was being faithful – I thought he was setting himself up as judge and usurping the place of The Judge. I’m not saying that the young man was a believer, the point is I did not know…and neither did the other minister.

Whilst we must not bury everyone as though they were a saint (although we can rejoice with those who are – there is a fundamental difference between the funerals of those we know are believers and those we do not know!), we are not in a position to know who has died unforgiven and without Christ.


A funeral is NOT primarily an opportunity for evangelism.  It is a place for mourning.  But it is also a place where we can point out to people that we are all mortal, that there is a life to come and that each of us needs to prepare for that.  Of course if we are burying a Christian brother or sister we will also speak of how we mourn, but not as those who have no hope.  A Christian funeral is a real celebration of what is to come (as well as the life ‘well lived’).  A worldly funeral can only celebrate what has passed and fear what is to come.  I recall being a funeral in Lewis where the minister smiled and turned to the men at the graveside and exclaimed “there is going to be some party on the day of resurrection with the saints buried in this place!”  I was pleasantly shocked to hear his joyful statement, which belied his sombre appearance!  He reminded me of the Garth Hewitt song “May you live to dance on your own grave…may you live to boogie all night long!”

As a basic rule I try to follow what I said in the broadcast – help  people mourn, show respect,  say something about their life (that can include humour) and point to Christ. Lets not trivialise death, but let us always point to the one who has defeated death.

Heb 2: But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone…… 14    Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

The Memorial Service of Gordon Wilson – A Witness to Different Truths


  1. I was brought up to never speak ill of/disrespect the dead and it’s an instruction I still try to follow. The widespread disrespect shown nowadays makes me despair.

    I also worry about and try to pray for the souls of those who don’t believe and where there is no Christian involvement in funerals (and ‘naming ceremonies’ and weddings).

  2. One pastor relayed to me the story of a funeral he preached at, where a particularly wealthy man had died (with him at his side) actively rejecting Christ (he pushed him away at the very thought of even squeezing his hand in order to show some kind of faith in Christ). The Pastor in question preached on the parable of the Rich man and Lazurus, and apparently several of his family came to faith through that. Now we could argue that there are insensitive ways to do this kind of preaching, but I’m sure there are ways in which to broach the subject in such a sermon without going overboard.

  3. The above just reminded me of this amusing little story:

    In a small town, there were two brothers who, over the course of many years, cheated, swindled, robbed and generally stole from everyone that they ever did business with.

    The entire town and surrounding community reviled and despised these two brothers as everyone was aware of just how disreputable and dishonest they were.

    One day, one of the brothers mysteriously died.

    Although they had never attended church, the one remaining brother went to the local pastor and offered vast sums of money if he would come to the funeral and say the appropriate words, AND, a large bonus, but ONLY if he would – during the course of the eulogy -refer to his brother as “a Saint.”

    The pastor was troubled by the request, however, it was a very poor church and the church desperately needed repairs.

    The parishioners had heard about the pastor’s dilemma and were curious as to what he would do.

    The funeral began, the church was packed, and the pastor started with the usual prayers and followed the rites and traditions as required by the churches teachings. In closing, after referring to the man in the box, he paused and turned to face the remaining brother.

    He began, “As you all know, the departed was an awful individual who robbed, cheated, swindled and stole from everyone he ever did business with.

    However, compared to his brother here, he was – “a Saint!”

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