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Preaching Death

The Transformation of Christian Funeral Sermons

By Lucy Bregman

Publication Year: 2011

Christians traditionally have had something substantive and important to say about death and afterlife.  Yet the language and imagery used in sermons about life and death have given way to language designed to comfort and celebrate.

In Preaching Death, Lucy Bregman tracks the changes in Protestant American funerals over the last one hundred years. Early-twentieth-century"natural immortality"doctrinal funeral sermons transitioned to an era of"silence and denial,"eventually becoming expressive, biographical tributes to the deceased. The contemporary death awareness movement, with the"death as a natural event"perspective, has widely impacted American culture, affecting health care, education, and psychotherapy and creating new professions such as hospice nurse and grief counselor.  Bregman questions whether this transition—which occurred unobserved and without conflict—was inevitable and what alternative paths could have been chosen. In tracing this unique story, she reveals how Americans' comprehension of death shifted in the last century—and why we must find ways to move beyond it.

Published by: Baylor University Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 4-5

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-9

This book’s themes took shape gradually. I am indebted to the Collegeville Institute, where I was a resident scholar back in 2000– 2001, and to the following individuals: Judith Buck-Glenn; Al Dueck; Dennis Klass; Thomas Long, Chris Moreman, and the Death, Dying and Beyond Consultation; Greg Schneider; Gerard S. Sloyan; Virginia ...

Part I What Christians Used to Say about Death

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1 A Changeover of Messagesand Images

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pp. 3-16

Christians have been fascinated with death, with imagery and ideas surrounding it, since the time when Jesus taught, suffered, and died. The enigmatic pairing of resurrection and life, with death and in opposition to death, has been intrinsic to Christian faith from the beginning. All die, or “never die,” or both. Yet this does not mean that Christians have simply echoed an eternal unchanging message, nor that one era’s words ...

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2 What Is a Christian Funeral?

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pp. 17-29

We need to know what a funeral is, and why have one. At a funeral, many things can happen, it can serve many functions. Some purposes are focused on the social and psychological needs of the family, community, or attendees, some are focused on the existential yearning to confront death and say something. By the era of silence and denial, these various and sometimes conflicting purposes and expectations could be ...

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3 Funeral Theologies of Death

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pp. 31-46

Distinguished church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once gave a series of lectures that became a short book, The Shape of Death. His topic was ancient theologies of death, and his point was that there need not be any one Christian view of it. There were, among the ancient Christian intellectuals, those who represented death as enemy, while others were happy to adopt Hellenistic Neoplatonism and make only minor ...

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4 Heaven as Home

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pp. 47-60

This text, unlike that of Zechariah, is still a favorite one for Protestant— and indeed all—Christian funerals. For many Christians it still comes closest of all the promises in the Bible to their own personal feelings and aspirations about what an afterlife is meant to be. The wise preacher, past and present, knows this, as the following story from an ...

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5 Heaven as Journey

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pp. 61-73

Because funeral preaching centered upon an intense focus on heaven, pastors invested much creative energy in its depiction, in making heaven real to those who were the future dead. While “heaven is a HOME” was the most frequently cited and emotionally vibrant image in the funeral sermons of the early twentieth century, other images supplemented and to some degree counteracted ...

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6 Natural Immortality

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pp. 75-87

This chapter confronts Christian “otherworldliness” head-on. Its philosophical plausibility and coherence are not the subject of our investigation: its emotional and spiritual power in dealing with death is what matters here. ...

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7 The Lord’s Will

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pp. 89-103

The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent nights lying on the ground . . . and he would not eat any food with them. On the seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child ...

Part II The Age of Silence and Denial

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8 “Please Omit Funeral”

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pp. 107-118

If the previous chapters revealed a solid and relatively uniform rationale for Christian funerals, and messages about death that seemed convincing to those who preached them, this is only part of the story. While the stated meanings of Christian funerals persist unaltered onward from the start of the twentieth century until its middle, funerals were ...

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9 The Challenge of New Theologies

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pp. 119-132

Halfway across the world, and a million miles away spiritually, the early twentieth century was a time of theological ferment and challenge. European religious thought struggled to encounter biblical scholarship, socialism, scientism, trade unions, and a wide range of explicitly antireligious ideologies. While at least during Protestant funerals, American ...

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10 Death as Enemy

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pp. 133-147

Recall one of the titles for a sermon collection early in the twentieth century: When Death Speaks. When Death spoke, the message was one of “natural immortality,” and of the link between the living and the recently dead. What went unnoticed at the time was that Death was a personification, who could “speak.” It went unnoticed because this was a long-standing convention in Western culture, and particularly present ...

Part III What Came Next

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11 New Words for Death, Dying,and Grief

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pp. 151-166

This chapter tells how suddenly, Paul’s assurance in Romans 8 could become a relevant biblical text at the funeral, a popular one for sermons as it had not been earlier. The promise that “neither death nor life will be able to separate us from the love of God” is a response to the threat of loss, to the experience of human separations. It is not about “the world to come” or “natural immortality,” ...

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12 The Triumph of the Biographical

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pp. 167-179

There is no epigraph at the head of this chapter. It is intentional, an omission that reflects the turn to “sermons” that are actually “celebrations of the life” of the deceased. In some contemporary anthologies, these sermons without biblical texts appear, lively, filled with anecdotes and memories. But I wonder if these truly qualify as “sermons.” We will ask what theology of death is preached, when the funeral takes this form. ...

Part IV What Might Have Been

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13 Two Alternatives

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pp. 183-195

The genre of “alternative history” has little repute among professional historians. Books based on “what if the South had won the Civil War?” are entertainment, but do not, it is assumed, tell us anything about the real world. Given the North’s overwhelming superiority of manpower and materials, the outcome of the war was never really up for grabs. However, we are not convinced that in the realm of ideas and ...

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14 What Might Have Been—Lament

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pp. 197-210

The previous chapter’s alternative “might have beens” did not happen. The first of these alternatives, the whole-hearted rejection of the death awareness movement in the name of Cullmann’s “death as enemy” approach, would have severed Christians from counseling and care for the dying. It also might have pushed the whole topic into the “culture wars” pattern, so that a discussion of hospice, or grief counseling, would ...

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15 The Eclipse of Poetry

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pp. 211-223

In the era before silence and denial, every funeral manual and Cyclopedia included a large section of “suitable poems” to be recited by the pastor at funerals. These poems could bring natural immortality out of the realm of philosophy or doctrine, and make it emotionally, palpably real. The poems played an important role in the funeral, and were intrinsic to most funeral sermons. Our surmise is that they filled ...

Part V Conclusion

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16 What Christians No Longer Want to Say about Death

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pp. 227-237

In these chapters, we have questioned some of the popular assumptions about the Christian past. It is not necessarily a “resource” for persons today. Our expectations that it should be need to be held in check. While the death awareness movement tells us “people used to see death as a natural event,” this statement may be useful as a rhetorical device in an argument about the present, but it misleads as a real ...


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pp. 239-245


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pp. 247-255

E-ISBN-13: 9781602584242
E-ISBN-10: 1602584249
Print-ISBN-13: 9781602583207
Print-ISBN-10: 160258320X

Page Count: 263
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Funeral sermons.
  • Funeral rites and ceremonies.
  • Death -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History of doctrines.
  • Death -- Biblical teaching.
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