The Transformation of Christian Funeral Sermons
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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Title Page, Copyright
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Table of Contents
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This book’s themes took shape gradually. I am indebted to the Col-legeville Institute, where I was a resident scholar back in 2000–2001, and to the following individuals: Judith Buck-Glenn; Al Dueck; and Beyond Consultation; Greg Schneider; Gerard S. Sloyan; Virginia I am also indebted to the staff at the Lutheran Theological Semi-nary of Philadelphia, colleagues and students at the Temple University ...
Part IWhat Christians Used to Say about Death
1A Changeover of Messagesand Images
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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 opposi-tion 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 ...
2What Is a Christian Funeral?
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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 pur-poses 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 ...
3Funeral Theologies of Death
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Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets 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 Chris-tian intellectuals, those who represented death as enemy, while others ...
4Heaven as Home
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Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so I This text, unlike that of Zechariah, is still a favorite one for Prot-estant—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 ...
5Heaven as Journey
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Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.Because funeral preaching centered upon an intense focus on heaven, pastors invested much creative energy in its depiction, in mak-ing 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 supple-...
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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 worldly,” a close examination of the imagery of funeral sermons shows that “otherworldly” depended upon very close and accessible analogies with “this-worldly” phenomena. In other words, to make the Christian ...
7The Lord’s Will
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The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, we spoke to David but he would not listen to us. child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then ...
Part IIThe Age of Silence and Denial
8“Please Omit Funeral”
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When I first went to Hollywood, a director I’d known in the old They hauled all of us out to that ghastly place. . . . I was so If the previous chapters revealed a solid and relatively uniform ratio-nale 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 ...
9The Challenge of NewTheologies
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If you really reject natural theology you do not stare at the ser-pent, with the result that it stares back at you, hypnotises you, and is ultimately certain to bite you, but you hit it and kill it as Halfway across the world, and a million miles away spiritually, the early twentieth century was a time of theological ferment and chal-lenge. European religious thought struggled to encounter biblical schol-...
10Death as Enemy
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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 IIIWhat Came Next
11New Words for Death, Dying,and Grief
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Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . For I am con-height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our 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 ...
12The Triumphof the Biographical
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There is no epigraph at the head of this chapter. It is intentional, an omission that reflects the turn to “sermons” that are actually “cele-brations 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 IVWhat Might Have Been
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The genre of “alternative history” has little repute among profes-sional 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 ...
14What Might Have Been—Lament
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The previous chapter’s alternative “might have beens” did not hap-pen. 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 ...
15The Eclipse of Poetry
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In the era before silence and denial, every funeral manual and Cyclo-pedia 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 ...
16What Christians No LongerWant to Say about Death
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In these chapters, we have questioned some of the popular assump-tions 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 descrip-...
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Page Count: 263
Publication Year: 2011