Från döden till sorgen. Griftetalets syfte och funktion i homiletikhistoriskt perspektiv


  • Oloph Bexell CTR


This article aims at clarifying how the burial sermon—a short, homiletic discourse said by the priest at the coffin as an introduction to the funeral service— as a homiletic genre has developed in the Church of Sweden from the middle of the 19th century to the present. How has its aim and function been understood in homiletic literature? 

The first part of the article shows the way that the burial sermon— independent of the death sermon, which was a more elaborate sermon which was earlier on delivered by the priest from the pulpit after the funeral—has developed from a more or less spontaneous preaching near the open grave in the churchyard to an established moment in liturgy. Up to the latter part of the 19th century, funerals often took place on Sundays in connection with Sunday service. Consequently, they were therefore carried out in the presence of the whole congregation. This connection was later on dissolved, and funerals were increasingly regarded as a private concern for the house of mourning, with a varying degree of publicity. 

In Sweden, during the middle of the 19th century, a book called Evangelische Homiletik (Evangelical Homiletics), written by the German professor Christian Palmer (1811-1875), was being used. Palmer recognizes the two poles of the burial sermon, the word of God and occasion, but he dwells the most on occasion. It was many times overdimensioned or wrongly aimed in the burial sermons of his day. The life of the deceased was to provide material for edifying examples. However, Palmer but touches upon how to frame the Bible preaching which he wishes to emphasize. It is a question of giving testimony on Christian faith, “a confession”. 

Gustav Baur (1816-1889) in Leipzig, a disciple of Schleiermacher’s, works in his hook Grundzüge der Homiletik (The Fundamentals of Homiletics, 1848) with a context which presupposes Christian knowledge as well as Christian awareness in the listeners. The burial sermon is to tie the conditions of external reality, occasion, with the all-encompassing religious contexts of the Church. The relation to occasion in a way serves the purpose of the captatio benevolentiae of rhetoric. The listeners get a clear idea that that which the priest is saying concerns their situation exactly and is applied to that particular human being just deceased. This having been done, the funeral orator has caught the ear of the listeners and is then able to lead them on from that very event to the all-encompassing religious context.

The Swedish homiletics theorist, professor Oscar Quensel (1845-1915) in Uppsala, takes an attitude close to that of Baur. When Quensel published his textbook Homiletik (Homiletics, 1894), church burial practice from an earlier date was as yet unbroken. The burial had a social function. According to him, it is the task of the funeral orator to think out and develop teachings for the parishioners’ own lives, so that those present can learn from the death having recently occurred. This group, to Quensel, becomes the addressees of the burial sermon. 

In his younger days, the leading ecumenist and later on archbishop Yngve Brilioth (1891-1959) was engaged in the education of priests. Here, the burial sermon has a function of pastoral cure. The priest is to make himself familiar with the occasion and the circumstances of the deceased person, in order not only to teach and console but also to lead the listener into such an insight in the Christian religious context that the death will not be “meaningless”. It is an education in ars moriendi.  

To bishop Elis Malmeström (1895-1974) and the Finno-Swedish dean Hans von Bergmann (b. 1917), the funeral sermon is more of a kind of preaching, von Bergmann consciously wishes to fit it into the Church’s total, homiletic context. In this particular situation, the sermon is to answer “the questions of life” with “the truths of the gospel”. The same should apply to the Sunday service sermon, but the funeral sermon becomes personal and occasion orientated. The funeral sermon can thus counteract the privatization of the funeral and connect it with the rest of the parochial services. 

Dean G. A. Danell (h. 1908) has shown a similar attitude. The death in question proves a possibility for deductive teaching— at the same time presenting the seriousness of eternity to the deceased’s family and urging religious revival and conversion. So, the aim of the Sunday sermon and that of the funeral sermon coincide. The oratorial part has but a secondary purpose, namely to personalize and concretize that which the priest wishes to convey. The eschatological motif leads to an indicating of the oratorial trait in the funeral sermon. 

When Jan Redin (1907-1998, rural dean) wishes to reintroduce biographical data as a clearly defined part of the funeral sermon, he does so in order for the rest of the sermon to be a proper exegesis of the seriousness of death and the hope for eternity. The use of biographical data gives the touch of occasion without changing the funeral sermon into an obituary or an oratorial memorial speech. 

Nor does Pehr Edwall (1915-1996)—homiletic teacher in Uppsala, later dean in Kalmar—in his textbook Homiletiska anteckningar (Homiletic Notes, 1965) give the funeral sermon a clearly oratorial function. To him funeral liturgy regularizes the contents of the funeral sermon. The Church’s funeral prayers and funeral texts are to give perspective and be the corrective for the contents of the preaching. The Church becomes the clearly acting subject of the funeral and the funeral sermon— and the funeral sermon shall interpret the main theme of the ceremony. Edwall was responsible for the wording of the Church of Sweden’s present funeral ritual. 

Martin Lönnebo (b. 1930, later bishop in Linköping) followed Pehr Edwall as a homiletic teacher at Uppsala University. Lönnebo’s textbook Homiletik (Homiletic, 1977) is widely spread and read. His well-known funeral sermon disposition based on the funeral formula (”From dust you came, To dust you shall return. Jesus Christ our Saviour will raise you up on the last day.”) makes possible a brief memorial oration without its dominating other aspects. The funeral sermon becomes divided into three parts: life, death, and resurrection. We also find some teaching on “death” here. The funeral formula as a model counteracts, however, that one or the other aspect prevails at the making of the funeral sermon. Its theme will be life, death and resurrection, and it will end in Easter and eschatology. 

Kerstin Lindqvist (b. 1939) and Catharina Segerbank (b.1961) have, during the latest decade, both worked with questions belonging to this sphere. Kerstin Lindqvist was a hospital chaplain in Stockholm for quite some time. Catharina Segerbank was a priest in Skåne (southern Sweden). Nowadays, the funeral talk has an established place in pastoral theological practice, while urbanization and secularization have often made this visit to the house of mourning the very first contact between the priest and the mourners. Segerbank considers the proper function of the talk to be consolation in the bereavement and to provide material for the funeral sermon. The talk, which was begun in the home, will be added up, or will be continued in the funeral sermon in church. Lindqvist expects the funeral sermon to articulate that which the mourners are feeling—a thing totally unfami­ liar to earlier homiletics. Segerbank would probably agree emphatically with this. 

Christian Palmer— the pastoral theologian of the early 19th century— and Catharina Segerbank— Palmer’s successor in the late 20th century— both consider “hope” as the central part of the funeral sermon. Even though it is implied in Segerbank, she does not, as does Palmer, talk explicitly about the Christian hope and its eschatological, basic dimension. Nor has she seen it as her task to, like him, reflect on the funeral preacher’s balancing between objective and subjective, “the general Word of God and a single occasion”. Her norm is “the gospel of hope”, occasionally marked, but dimly formulated. 

However, Palmer’s interpretation of this concept is not so much the generally objective as the subjectively special occasion which Segerbank wishes to stress. The “objective” pole will often be the priests’ personal experiences— in their contact with the mourners or in other contexts— which in occasional empathy become elucidated by the biblical quotation chosen. Segerbank seldom practices proper Bible commenting. The preaching of the funeral sermon will primarily result in a meeting, not between the Church as an ecclesiological concept and the funeral guests/parishioners, but rather between the priest as a human being and the mourning family members. When taking into account that the objective and the subjective of many funeral sermon theorists often result in an advisory/parenetic (Gr. parainesis) trait— some advice towards reflection on one’s own part— we can establish that this is totally non-existent in Segerbank’s example sermons. W hen consolation is made primary, advice (parainesis) becomes impossible. 

When the funeral sermon becomes a prolongation of the funeral talk in the house of mourning, pastoral theological models of pastoral cure have an impact on its homiletic presentation. This is a thought which will also be found in the Danish funeral sermon theorist Eva Meile: the funeral sermon is part of a long process of pastoral cure, which begins at the death-bed or at the visit to the mourners, and which does not end until the family members feel that they are on their way out of that unreal condition which a death causes. Then, its purpose and aim are no longer teaching, explaining, or evangelizing. Instead, the funeral sermon preacher is to articulate the mourners’ gratefulness to the life-work of the deceased person. The funeral sermon now becomes a bit of public pastoral cure, a public consolation, at the same time as the insight of people not directly concerned, on account of the increasing privatization of the funerals, is many a time limited to a mini­ mum. Its occasion will no longer primarily be death or eternity, neither the deceased person nor the death having occurred, but rather the close family’s grief. It is to be lessened, consoled and removed. This will happen through the priest’s funeral sermon, emanating from the words chosen in the Bible, which puts forward the bereaved family’s positive memories of the deceased one and which helps them to articulate their feelings in their minds. This might he what Segerbank refers to when, in her funeral sermons, she wishes to “put handles on the words”—the family members are to he helped to, so to speak, carry their words and feelings out into the open. In this way and through the funeral sermon preaching of 1997, they are expected to see death fade away in the distance, fuga mortis.