Kristen begravning i ett sekulariserat och pluralistiskt samhälle


  • Jan-Olof Aggedal CTR


In this essay, entitled “Christian Funerals in a Secularised and Pluralistic Society”, the liturgy and practice of the Christian funeral service in the Church of Sweden is investigated, both within the context of the secular and pluralistic society and from the perspective of the Church’s attempts, laid down in various directions from the College of Bishops and in official pastoral guidelines— to meet this new situation. Some central aspects of the funeral service are discussed, such as the importance of the rite as an appropriate way of saying goodbye, the use of privately designed rites, the role of the priest, and the importance of the music. Altogether 89,3% of all funerals in Sweden every year are conducted according to the Order of Service of the Church of Sweden, and about 2,6 million people attend these services. That is the reason for limiting this discussion to the Church of Sweden. 

Swedish society is deeply secularised and pluralistic with a strong sense of private religiosity. As part of the process of urbanisation, people’s common protective networks were broken. Traditions either disappeared completely or became hard to understand within an urban society. People lost their roots and their culture. In the vacuum which thus emerged, attempts were made to create new rites and establish new traditions. Privacy and individuality, and the idea that “everyone will he saved by his own faith” grew when the church failed to provide adequate rites for the quests of life posed by modern man. 

People need rites. There is emptiness without rites. The written, formal, ritual order is a help to the individual at times when he or she is not able spontaneously to create rites, or to find rites which fill the experienced need. A true rite is created out of human experience, and if a given rite no longer functions appropriately, people will make up their own new rites to replace the old ones. For example, the hymn “Glorious is the earth...” (Härlig är jorden, Swedish Hymnal 297) seems to have become a ritual of its own within the funeral service. This hymn has become something of a “folk- ritual”, and for many people the singing of this hymn is just as important in order to make the funeral “feel right” as the use of the solemn words: “From the dust you were made, to dust you shall return. Jesus Christ, our Saviour will raise you up at the last day”. 

The Christian funeral service is charged with the hard task of both pro­ claiming the hope of eternal life and of meeting and speaking to the mourners right where they are, in the confusion of loss and mourning. The Christian funeral service is a paschal liturgy which could he defined as respect for the body, hope for the soul and compassion for what the Prophet Isaiah calls the broken-hearted. People’s need to say a proper good-bye presents the church with difficult considerations to balance within this individualistic and pluralistic environment. There is a limit which the church must not exceed in meeting individual wishes, a boundary where the church must stop in order not to lose her soul, her innermost identity. This is a critical point for the church. While the church must be clear about her position, she must also be open towards meeting the thoughts and needs of the individual person. The wishes of the deceased person and of his/her relatives about how the funeral service should be conducted must he respected as far as possible in a national “folk” church. There is a creative tension between “Christian” and “human” values, between “the church” and “the world”. The relatives come to the funeral service each with their own private experiences of the deceased person, and when these are mirrored and set against the ritual language and action of the service, an interpretation of what is taking place emerges within each attendant. We can never he sure of what goes on within each individual person, hut we may surmise that each person stages his or her own personal farewell of their loved one within the framework of the funeral service. An example of this may be found in the increasingly common practice to light a candle while filing past the coffin. This practice does not as such pose any problem, but when combined with words like “farewell, sleep well” or “live well in our next grandchild” a statement about immortality or re-incarnation, rather than the teaching about the corn of wheat which passes through death to life, is implied. The function of the funeral service as a rite of passage becomes clear when the ceremony of lighting candles and the spoken words seem to he a kind of private committal of the deceased person. The privately designed rite, or part of the rite, seems to express a longing for truth and authenticity, an authenticity which feels right for the person who takes part in shaping the rite, and which provides a solemn and sacred atmosphere, in which the relationship to the personality of the deceased person stands out as important. In the pluralistic society individuality is a prominent value. The conception of the uniqueness of each person is a leading thought which should be reflected in the funeral service. Therefore attempts are made to bring out, in that shaping of the rite, those unique and distinctive qualities which make a unique funeral. As someone has said: “My life has been mine and not someone else’s. Therefore I do not want someone else’s funeral”. 

At an overall level, the Church of Sweden seems to be very marginalised, particularly on issues which effect her very essence, such as questions of life, death and resurrection—both Christ’s and other people’s—while at the same time, at an intimate and mundane level, the Church is invited to he a servant of people’s needs. The Church and the Christian faith have the ambition of embracing the whole person from the cradle to the grave. This ambition includes the offering of a key to the interpretation of life. In the pluralistic society the church is challenged by a new process of ritualising, in which people interpret the rites in their own way and often very far away from the church’s interpretation. The ways in which this happens are discussed in this essay. 

Translation: Gerd Swensson, Te Deum