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

Author:Simon, Nganga


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 1.5 million and speak Lubukusu, is important in terms of spreading the message, persuading the participants to change their way of believing, and consoling the bereaved with the message of hope based on Christ's death and resurrection.

More specifically, my experience as a Catholic, and as a participant in funerals, has shown me that there seems to be a pattern regarding how the priest - against the background of the scripture and the lives of the deceased and the bereaved - connects with the participants in the sermon (including the bereaved).

The point of departure for this essay was my observation that, during the delivery of the sermon, the priest uses verbal devices in the search for contact with the participants- who may not necessarily be members of the Christian religion - with respect to Christ present in the salvation history (detailed in the Bible), the lives of the bereaved and the life of the deceased. In this sense, the verbally invoked shared background of Christ's life, death and resurrection present in the Bible, and the life of the bereaved and the deceased is at the same time via using certain linguistic means was initiated into the circumstances of the participants. In light of this, the focus of this article is the analysis of how the priest uses rhetorical questions, and what data tells us about when they are used and why they are used. Thus, there is a review of the rhetorical questions in the literature, a report on the data and methods used herein, and a conclusion, with discussion.

Rhetorical Questions in Literature

While there is little literature on how rhetorical questions or more broadly reversed polarity questions are used discursively (exceptions include Ilie, 1994; Karhanova, 2005 and Koshik, 2005), the question of the use of rhetorical questions in naturally occurring talk is one which has attracted a lot of attention in the last few decades. Approaches to rhetorical questions have clearly changed over time in the literature. This is expected given the development from approaches to rhetorical questions which used intuitive data to analyze the structural aspects (Lee, 1995) to approaches which make use of empirical data and, therefore, aim at showing how rhetorical questions function in discourse ( Karhanova, 2005; Koshik, 2005). Contemporary literature emphasizes the use-side of rhetorical questions, and has moved away from arguments that rhetorical questions are redundant interrogatives that are mainly ornamental. Instead it is argued that rhetorical questions are 'intended to fulfil at the same time one or several more discursive functions, such as reproach, a warning an objection, a promise, a self-exculpation, an accusation etc' (Ilie 1994:45-6). Hence, context plays a central role in the identification and interpretation of a rhetorical question (Karhanova, 2005:341). In this sense, it has been shown that there is need to get beyond the surface properties to the question of what rhetorical questions accomplish in real life interactions (Estes, 2013:35).

But this shift in perspective notwithstanding, a number of studies on the general use of questions have tended to give rhetorical questions a cursory treatment, preferring to discuss rhetorical questions only when the need to distinguish them from other question-types arises. For instance, in order to distinguish rhetorical questions from information seeking questions, Archer (2005:28) begins by observing that form as a standard for delimiting question types cannot account for rhetorical questions, since rhetorical questions are 'interrogative in structure, but... [have] the force of an assertion rather than a question'. This argument...

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