Responding to national grief: memorial sermons on the famous in Britain 1800-1914

Wolffe, John (1996). Responding to national grief: memorial sermons on the famous in Britain 1800-1914. Mortality, 1(3) pp. 283–296.



This paper is founded on the presumption, supported at the outset by some illustrative evidence, that public reactions to the deaths of prominent people provide revealing insights into wider cultural and religious attitudes to death. During the period under consideration the deaths and funerals of individuals such as Princess Charlotte (1817), the Duke of Wellington (1852), the Prince Consort (1861) and Queen Victoria (1901) were marked by services in numerous churches throughout Britain, and the sermons preached on these occasions provide the source material for this study. The views of death apparent showed considerable diversity. At least in the earlier part of the period there was no taboo against critical comments on the deceased. The idealization of the deathbed was the exception rather than the rule, and there was a wide variety of teaching regarding the afterlife. The deaths of the famous were also significant in that they stimulated awareness of national community, sometimes through celebrating and recalling past eras and achievements; sometimes through perceived national accountability to God; sometimes through idealization of the power of human sympathy; sometimes through stress on the inclusiveness and universality of national grief.

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