Funeral Orations and Sermons


Since ancient times ceremonies and rites have been associated with the disposal of a corpse. The purposes of these rites were to honor the deceased, to plead for divine favor, and to console the bereaved. Among the diverse customs that developed, funeral oratory emerged as a favorite means of responding to death, for it could, more than any other activity, highlight the personal characteristics of the deceased while serving as a means of reinforcing social bonds and status.

Roman Origins of the Funeral Oration

The Roman funeral oration ( laudatio funebris ) was typically utilized by the social elite. It provided the means for publicly reaffirming the continued authority of the Roman state, the power and prestige of the deceased's family, and the maintenance of cultural values and social hierarchies. Normally the son of the deceased or another close relative delivered the funeral oration in the city forum, following a variety of public and private rituals. During the oration, the deceased's meritorious deeds and virtues were recounted. The oration highlighted the moral strength and acts of charity performed by the dead. In addition, celebration of loyal service to Rome in public office or military rank reinforced the authority of the Roman state. Recitation of the achievements and legendary deeds of the deceased's ancestors showed continuity with the past.

In his works, the Roman chronicler Polybius described in his written works some of the benefits of a typical elite funeral for younger citizens, arguing that such orations and grand celebrations invoked pride and inspired young men to emulate the behavior and deeds of the deceased. The tone of orations was positive. Families kept these eulogies as reminders and enduring obituaries that acted as a kind of moral heritage.

Funeral Sermons of the Middle Ages

Funeral sermons of the Christian Middle Ages, often titled de mortuis sermons, originated with the works of Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century. His sermons combined Roman oration characteristics of praise and lamentation with Christian consolation. However, most surviving information on sermons dates from the fourteenth century. The medieval funeral sermon took place between the funeral mass and the burial, most likely given in the language that the majority of listeners would understand—Latin for a clerical audience, the vernacular for a lay audience. Sermons featured three main themes: an extended discussion on death based on biblical scriptures; the presentation of the deceased as a praiseworthy role model; and a plea to the living to help the dead.

Many funeral sermons survived as models for preachers. Such model sermons were adapted to individual cases indicating use for a priest, knight, burgess, or matron. The existence of so many model sermons suggests that by the fourteenth century demand for funeral sermons had risen.

Sermons stressed that grief was natural but should be controlled, and that the bereaved should present a brave face to the world, easing the suffering of others. Indeed, funeral sermons often argued that grief should be rational, having an appropriate level of grief. Therefore, the status of the deceased and importance to the community was taken into account, with grief for a knight greater than for a burgess and greatest for a prince. In this way funeral sermons make clear the complexity of the social hierarchy beyond the notion of the three estates. Medieval funeral sermons usually strove to celebrate the person in his or her role, not as an individual. Thus, medieval funeral sermons did not convey a strong impression of the deceased's individuality, but instead gave a sense of the person's place in the community.

The Funeral Oratory and the Protestant and Catholic Reformations

The Protestant and Catholic Reformations caused the nature of the funeral oratory to gradually change. By 1550 Lutheran ministers had begun to emphasize sermons, which did not actually become central to burial services until 1600. Martin Luther had preached the first extant Lutheran sermons for the Saxon electors, Frederick the Wise and John the Constant, in 1525 and 1532, respectively. Focusing on the living rather than the dead, the intent of his biblical explication, Thessalonians 4:13–14 for both services, was to praise God and to console his congregation. He did not dwell on the personal qualities of the deceased. As these sermons increased in popularity, partly through the inclusion of models in church ordinances, their nature was transformed. Attached to their biblical exegeses and moral messages were lengthy eulogies of the deceased and their families. Because all funerals did not include sermons, the preaching of them served to highlight the deceased's prestige. They generated widespread criticism because preachers inflated the qualities of the deceased and their families. Extremely popular, some 300,000 of them for both men and women were printed by 1770.

In other lands, extreme reformers, such as John Knox and some English Puritans, denounced the preaching of funeral sermons for fear that they would be interpreted as intercessory prayers for the dead or would be used to elicit those prayers. Many reformers, who also objected to them because of their Pagan origins, argued that burial of the dead was more appropriately a civil than a religious obligation. Ultimately, most English clergy chose to provide eulogies out of respect for the wishes of the bereaved who generally wanted to hear their beloved ones praised. Only a few Puritans failed to add commendations to their sermons. Justifying the praise on didactic grounds, their fellow ministers explained that they could hold up the praiseworthy lives of the departed as a pattern for members of their congregations to follow. Between 1670 and 1714, the sermons became increasingly popular; most of the 1,300 that were published in England appeared during that period. Some of the printed sermons were for women, who were extolled as models for all Christians, not just other women, to follow.

Moving between lamentation and praise, English preachers comforted the bereaved in oratory that was based on exegeses of scriptural texts, most often from the New Testament; a favorite was Revelation 14:13. With Greek and Latin allusions, ministers expounded on the brevity of life, on the difficulty of dying well, and on the blissful paradise awaiting Christians. They also attempted to rationalize the deceased's death and to offer ways in which members of their congregations should respond to their losses. Finally, they turned to the eulogies, which took up from one-fourth to one-third of the sermons and which, like the Lutheran ones, increasingly elicited criticism because of their flattering language. The more extreme Protestants tended to give stylized eulogies while other preachers offered ones that were somewhat more individualized in character. They all discussed personal matters, such as household relationships, private and public worship, and good works, as well as public careers. A detailed and sometimes lengthy description of the deathbed scene followed, in which the deceased played major roles in religious meditations and struggled to overcome satanic temptations.

Post-Reformation Oratories

Orations continued in post-Reformation Protestant and Catholic countries. Universities in both areas might honor distinguished alumni with special memorial Latin oratory that extolled their public service and benefactions. Following the funeral mass in Catholic countries, such as France, priests also offered orations in which the eulogies were usually preceded by a lengthy meditation on death and the transitory nature of life. The death of the deceased, priests explained, was not simply the loss of relatives and friends but of all humanity.

During the Enlightenment, further changes occurred in Protestant and Catholic funerals. In Lutheran services the amount of clerical input was greatly decreased and often a secular oration replaced the sermon. In England the emphasis of the sermon shifted from the deceased's personal religious practices and household relationships to his or her public accomplishments and good works. Some Anglican preachers all but promised members of their congregations that if they followed the deceased's example they would be blessed financially in their earthly lives. Deathbed scenes were increasingly neglected. Although nonconformists continued to preach traditional sermons, criticism of their inflated eulogies soon led to their decline in popularity as well. In France, priests dwelt almost entirely on the deceased's life on the earth, leaving out extended religious meditations on death and the transitory nature of life.

Orations in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

By the late eighteenth century, funeral orations had shifted firmly away from religious strictures and biblical exegesis to more secular topics. These eulogies emphasized the deeds of the citizen laboring in the state's service as well as private virtues. Republican France staged elaborate civic funerals that pointedly restricted religious content and reinforced republican ideals. This aspect became most clear at the graveside as orators, chosen by family members, spoke in praise and memory of the departed. The speeches dealt with the deceased's best qualities, but also touched on political and social issues, providing an opportunity for reaffirming the prominence of the republic. England utilized state funerals for similar political and cultural affirmation.

In France and England, the religious portion of the funeral sermon dwelt on the threat of hell, though by the end of the nineteenth century the image of hell receded and the religious message became one of reassurance and comfort. In funeral sermons hell lost its terror, while heaven came to be a place that promised good things and reunion with loved ones.

Funeral Sermons in the Twentieth Century

Over the course of the twentieth century, funeral sermons further deemphasized the religious content as the entire funeral process became more professional and less dominated by family members. Although the clergy continued to provide sermons and commendations at funerals, especially in the reformed churches, by the late twentieth century the secularization of society had led to an increased lay participation in the services, with friends and family providing eulogies and services that often supplanted the religious services. Lay eulogies included film clips, recordings, oral reminiscences, poetry, and spiritual readings. The orators, unlike their predecessors, often recalled the foibles of the deceased as well as their finer moments. The total effect of the service was to celebrate the human spirit rather than to offer up the deceased as a religious model.

Funeral oratory has served vital social functions in Western culture, including commending the deceased and reinforcing religious beliefs, social hierarchies, and relationships. Funeral oratory in the twenty-first century will likely reflect a continuing secular emphasis, as well as the growing influence of the World Wide Web and advancing technology. Numerous religious organizations offer resources on the Internet for funeral sermons and eulogy. Virtual funerals on the Internet and videotaped funerals will increase access to funeral oratory. Access to oratory practices worldwide via technology and the Internet may both diversify and homogenize human death practices.

See also: Epitaphs ; Funeral Industry ; Grief AND Mourning IN Cross-Cultural Perspective

Bibliography

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RETHA M. WARNICKE TARA S. WOOD



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