Preaching Death: The Transformation of Christian Funeral Sermons
by Lucy Bregman
Baylor, 263 pages, $24.95
If thirty years ago my seminary classmates and I had any notion of how to talk about death, we learned it from Elizabeth K¸bler-Ross’ “death awareness” model, reinforced by the equally therapeutic approach (masquerading as pastoral care) found in Clinical Pastoral Education, now mandatory at most seminaries. Death is natural, the service is a scaffold to support a “celebration” of the deceased, funerals are grief therapy for mourners, and the professionalized pastor will tend to them with cool, clinical skill.
This approach was supposedly a great advance for Americans who, before 1970, met death with silence and denial. But as Lucy Bregman, a professor of religion at Temple University, shows in Preaching Death: The Transformation of Christian Funeral Sermons, Christians in the early twentieth century said a lot about death and it was radically different from what we say now.
What was being preached before death awareness? Bregman—a brave researcher—read early-twentieth century sermon anthologies and found four general themes employed by clergy, each of which she treats as a chapter: heaven as home, heaven as a journey, death as the Lord’s will, and natural immortality.
These were frequently laid out doctrinally with little of what we call pastoral sensitivity. The dogmatized funeral sermon—focusing on God and heaven, and not on the deceased, nor on the pastor’s interactions with the deceased—might be softened here and there with infusions of Victorian parlor poetry to emphasize, say, immortality of the soul or a homecoming in heaven. When it came to death as the Lord’s will, even in a funeral for a child, pastors offered little but the duty of “Christian acquiescence.” Funerals were not for the mourners or the deceased, but for the “future dead.”
By the mid-twentieth century the words used at funerals were vestigial words from the early-half of the century, “faded out shadows of a past era.” Although it was a time of great theological excitement and exploration—the period of Cullmann, Moltmann, Barth, Brunner, and others who reframed revelation, eschatology, and church history—“what was said at the funeral by the preacher became increasingly isolated from what he and other Christians said elsewhere.”
The contest for what clergy might say, though Bregman doesn’t put it like this, was between Elizabeth K¸bler-Ross and Oscar Cullmann. Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (1958) tried to bury the popular Christianized Platonist model of the natural immortality of the soul. K¸bler-Ross’ On Death and Dying (1969) gave us the “death awareness” movement. Both of these excited and stimulated Christian thinking on death, but of the two “death awareness” prevails.
Cullman’s biblical examination of death is stark, terror-ridden. The death awareness “story” is nostalgically gentle. Once upon a time, before the mid-twentieth century period of “silence and denial” about and around death, death was a natural part of the “cycle of life.” And then death and the dying were hospitalized and mechanized, put away and hidden from sight, and there was nothing that could be said publicly about death because Americans no longer had a language for death.
The dying had to fumble on their own for the meaning of dying. Death wasn’t “natural” anymore, not like the wistful portrait K¸bler-Ross painted of her childhood Swiss village, where family and friends surrounded the dying person in a warm embrace, at home.
It was a picture that resonated with Americans. Hers was not the first book on death and dying, but it was the first breakout book dealing popularly with what had been an academic subject stretching back at least to Freud’s 1917 essay on mourning and melancholia. K¸bler-Ross’ essential message was a rejection of “dehumanizing” medicine for a “natural” death, joined to the observation that a terminal diagnosis offers opportunity for further personal growth. One might, though Bregman doesn’t, call this death-as-therapy.
While K¸bler-Ross’ advocacy for “natural” death has had little practical effect on where people actually go to die (the hospital still seems most likely), the death awareness story and the therapy around it carries tremendous cultural power. You might remember President Clinton, addressing the 1999 killings at Columbine High School, explicitly assuring the nation that he had dispatched grief counselors to the school. Try talking today about grief and loss without using “denial” or “closure.”
If Cullmann’s work helped to biblically demolish “natural immortality,” a staple of early-twentieth century funeral sermons, the death awareness movement did not adopt his ideas of “death as an enemy,” “death as the wages of sin,” and “death as a curse.”
In fact, immortality seems to be the functioning though perhaps unspoken element of the death awareness movement spiced, perhaps, with a bit of New Age reincartionalism: Death is another stage of life, maybe one of many, and nothing to get spooked about. A colleague relates hearing a hospice chaplain preaching the story of how water bugs must climb up the lily pads to the surface before reaching “a higher plane of existence.”
The death awareness movement did give clergy a new language. Yet new does not mean improved. Under the influence of death awareness, funerals have become less, not more, than they once were, with pinched imagery and impoverished language.
Contemporary funerals and sermons are obsessive in seeking to “celebrate” the “natural” passage of life. Bregman calls this the “triumph of the biographical.” By this she means preachers (usually Protestant; Catholics have rules against it in some dioceses) undertake verbally expressive biographical sketches of the deceased’s life, trying to show that something important has happened in this death, something the living should note to assuage their grief, and convey the sense of a fulfilled life. Sometimes the biographical remarks are told in excruciatingly maudlin detail, to judge by (I hope) an exaggerated example she provides.
Something is missing. “What is missing is any direct reference to what lies beyond or after” death. Resurrection, even immortality, doesn’t fit a biographical sermon that draws, at best, a sketchy outline of a life reaching completion through “natural death.”
But if death awareness has given us funerals that are less than they once were, are there resources from early-twentieth century sermons to help us reimagine Christian funerals and preaching? Bregman’s abrupt answer is “no.” Hearers today, she says, “could not sit through these sermons. They would rise up and throttle the preacher, if not literally, then metaphorically at the next worship committee or board or vestry meeting.”
From some of her examples, I doubt they would wait that long. The whole funeral atmosphere and the sermonic style, right down to the choice of poems, “would be impossibly distressing if not absolutely offensive to us.”
Bregman instead suggests that Christian funerals should provide an opportunity to “reach out toward a sense of divine involvement with life and death, of God’s presence and majesty and passionate involvement with all dimensions of our world and our lives.” She proposes that a funeral service is for the worship of God.
Worship does not seem like a natural reaction to the death of a friend, parent, child, or spouse. Wooden tongues and hearts in rebellion against loss would seem a more standard reaction. But Bregman is on to something here. At such moments, reciting liturgy that compels us to offer worship and praise to God guards us against both the excesses of “celebrations” and the forlorn desiccations earlier preachers offered.
Bregman has already selected a reading for her funeral.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun
Which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion
Like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens, and makes its circuit to the other;
Nothing is hidden from its heat.
Psalm 19:4–6 is not about death nor even at first does it seem to be very much about God, but, she hopes, it will “evoke wonder at the scope and stretch of God’s presence in and over the world. In short, it is there for worship, and it helps place a single individual’s death in the widest possible setting.”
For the Christian dead “the widest possible setting” is found within the embrace of God through the resurrection of Christ. Never should any pastor say anything less than that.
Russell E. Saltzman is a Lutheran pastor and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays.