Funeral Oration: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Debbie Notari
The art of funeral oration first appeared in the Greek culture as far back as approximately 450 B.C. when Pericles spoke at a funeral for fallen soldiers. In this lesson, we will look at the past history of funeral oration and how it has continued to be used in modern times.

Definition

A funeral oration is a lengthy speech given at a funeral. However, it started as an ancient Greek art form. One of the most famous of these speeches is Pericles' Funeral Oration. In this speech, Pericles mourned the deaths of soldiers in the beginning battles of the Peloponnesian War. Funeral orations are generally formal in nature and their themes sometimes extend beyond the deaths of the people who are being mourned.

Characteristics of Early Greek Funerals

Greek funerals had distinct characteristics. Tents would be built, and the bones of the dead would rest for three days before the actual funeral. People would bring gifts and leave them near the tents. Then, according to their tribes, the bones were brought to a sepulcher, where they were buried in the ground. A large crowd of people often joined the friends and relatives of the deceased. Women had the role of publicly mourning, and after the burial, a wise man was chosen to give a speech. This speech was a funeral oration.

Pericles' Funeral Oration

After the deaths of several soldiers in the Peloponnesian War, Pericles presented his funeral oration. His speech was eloquent, and he used this opportunity to promote the virtues of Democracy as well. From the beginning, the tone of funeral oration is both formal and poetic. Here is part of the speech he presented:

'So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field . . . And not (be) contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country . . . you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer.'

Other Examples of Funeral Oration

Shakespeare presents a strong example of funeral oration in Marc Antony's speech after the brutal killing of Caesar. In the speech, Marc Antony cleverly manipulates the crowd to rise against Caesar's conspirators, although he claims that Brutus, one of the instigators, is an 'honorable man.' Here is part of Marc Antony's speech:

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones;

So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus

Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault;

And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, --

For Brutus is an honourable man;

So are they all, all honourable men, --

Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.'

Clearly, funeral orations were used for personal gain at times, and as funerals are usually emotional times, crowds could be swayed towards the opinion of the funeral orator.

Praise for Noble Men

However, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, funeral orations were also a chance to give due praise and honor to the fallen. On April 16th, 1865, Miss Emma Hardinge presented such an oration in honor of the assassinated president. In her speech, she said:

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