Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

In Search of Contact: Rhetorical Questions in the Communicative Frame of the Funeral Sermon

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

In Search of Contact: Rhetorical Questions in the Communicative Frame of the Funeral Sermon

Article excerpt


In the context of death, through the use of face-to-face interaction, which minimizes the disruptive effects of death (Willmott 2000:4), people communicate ideas and feelings about loss via the funeral event or ritual, which consist of a host of verbal and non-verbal practices clustering around the practice of burial. To this description of the funeral ritual, I add that these verbal and non-verbal practices vary in religious orientation, duration, the number of people involved, the nature of interaction taking place therein and the time and manner of occurrence, with some coming before burial and others after burial and with some occurring independently and with some overlapping (Nganga forthcoming).

Such verbal and non-verbal practices, which are themselves rituals (Van Gennep 1960; Turner, 1967), play a crucial role in the context of death, at least among the members of the community familiar with the norms governing interactions within such 'conventionalized settings'. Thus, as essential communicative actions that enable participants to 'achieve their communicative goals in real life situations' (Gumperz 1999:454) the rituals are for scholars recognizable, accessible and analyzable.

With regard to face-to-face communication in the funeral event, which includes participants drawn from the Christian religion, some of the most important practices or contexts, where such interactions take place, is the visits to the bereaved and the 'highly ritualized' setting of mass (Nganga forthcoming). Their differences notwithstanding, what the two interactional settings seem to share is the fact that they allow the participants to witness the revelation Christ's death and resurrection by referring to the history of salvation and to incorporate this reality in their circumstances. The witness to Christ's death and resurrection and its subsequent application to the participants' circumstances has been discussed under the two-dimensional preaching: horizontal and vertical (Church 1970). Horizontal preaching involves witnessing Christ's life, death and resurrection while vertical preaching follows from Christ's command to the witnesses: 'to preach to the people' (Church 1970:43-4). Horizontal and vertical preaching are motivated by - and indeed build on - the understanding that 'apostles had a direct experience of the risen Lord.' They 'at the same time drew on the tradition of the past' (Church 1970:44). While during the visits to the bereaved family participants witness and speak about Christ's death and resurrection without the intervention of a specialist, in mass participants witness death and resurrection of presided over by as specialist i.e. a priest or a bishop. Mass comprises of fixed parts and parts that can be said to be 'flexible.' For example, prayers and the sermon are critical to the religious service.

The sermon, the focus here seems to be the most complex of the 'open spaces' in mass (Werlen, 1984). Following the mandatory two biblical readings (the first reading and the gospel) and lasting between twenty minutes and one hour, the sermon has a definite structure of the beginning, development and conclusion (Nganga forthcoming). Defined as a discourse on the scripture together with a practical application, the sermon 1) 'proclaims the word as has been read' and 2) 'enables those present to share in the mystery of' available in mass(Church 1970:54), the salvation history, the lives of the participants. In this sense, the principal feature of the sermon is persuasion; it bridges the 'objective' or 'real' side and the 'subjective' or 'personal' side (Church, 1970:54) and in a context such as the Bukusu funeral among the Bukusu people of western Kenya that brings together participants from diverse religions such as Christian, Traditional Bukusu religion and Islam it can be used to proselytize (Nganga forthcoming).

What makes the sermon particularly persuasive is its ability to connect with the local context of the participants, a practice, which at least in the funeral context among the Bukusu people who number about 1. …

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