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date: 27 March 2017

Martin Luther on Death and Dying

Summary and Keywords

In the late 15th century, when Martin Luther was born and grew up, death was very much present. Family, friends, and neighbors seldom reached what we today would consider a middle age, and women of childbearing age were at special risk. Catholic clergy took pains to offer Christians at every social level ways in which they could prepare themselves for the happiest possible afterlife.

When Martin Luther joined the order of Augustinian Eremite Friars in 1505, he had never read a Bible. He now gained access to one that the brothers of the Erfurt house had in their library. Luther read it intently. He found that numerous Catholic points of theology and practice were not validated in scripture. In 1517, he chose the issue of indulgences on which to attack church practice, in view of the fact that the ordinary people in Wittenberg to whom he regularly preached—he was not their pastor—sacrificed a great deal to pay for certificates of indulgence.

As a result of his encounter with the Bible, Luther proceeded to dismantle long-standing Catholic belief concerning death and treatment of the dead. He disqualified the Virgin, saints, and priests as intermediaries between individual souls and God. He insisted that as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, humans could not perform good deeds to earn themselves entry to Heaven. They had, instead, to rely on the atoning power of Christ’s death on the cross to pay the penalties that they deserved for their continual sinning. Those who had faith in the atonement would be saved. Justification by faith supplanted a theology of justification by good works.

Gradually, over about twenty years, new Lutheran liturgies for ministering to the sick and dying and for burying the dead were introduced. Beginning at about midcentury, preachers were instructed to compose funeral sermons for just about every burial. These constitute a new literary subgenre. Many were published for reading by a larger audience, and as many as a quarter million of such printed sermons have survived. Visible as a theme within them is the traditional belief that every Christian should strive to achieve a “good death.” The phrase meant that dying people should cling fervently to the certainty that Christ has paid the penalty for faithful Christians’ sins.

Keywords: Martin Luther, justification by faith, Lutheran funerary liturgy, funeral sermon, removal of cemeteries, life after death, theology of good works

The Late Medieval Setting

The Reformation in general and Martin Luther in particular effected a revolution in official thought concerning death and the treatment of the death.1 Luther was born into a world of vigorous folk culture that felt humanity to be surrounded by mortality.2 This was an accurate perception. The memory of the bubonic/pneumonic plague persisted, because attacks of the plague continued intermittently throughout Europe. They would continue to do so until the late 17th century. Their coming was unpredictable, and when this disease made its presence known, the mobile populace—which is to say mainly people of means—often fled before it. Martin Luther refused to leave Wittenberg, even when he had his ruler’s encouragement. Those with responsibilities to others, he wrote, had in good conscience to remain.3 In November 1527, he wrote to Nicholas von Amsdorf that his house was like a plague hospital. He included a list of the sick that included Katharina, his wife, and their infant son, Hans. Luther feared that they would die, but they survived. Hans may have been teething, Luther said later.4 The wife of Georg Rörer, a deacon and friend, did succumb, which affected the Luthers deeply.5 The artistic theme of the danse macabre antedated the first great onset of plague and continued through the 16th century. Memento mori! Do not forget that death surrounds you, and be prepared! Repent of your sins! This warning was ubiquitous in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Other reminders of human (and animal) mortality were everywhere. Without the aids of good hygiene, nutritional awareness, inoculation, and antibiotics, Luther’s contemporaries were utterly vulnerable. Communicable diseases surrounded everyone, and especially during the uninsulated, widely unheated winter, the common cold could lead to pneumonia and death. Becoming pregnant and giving birth placed women at great risk. Women and infants died at what to us is a dreadful rate. Martin feared that his beloved Katharina von Bora “Lutheryn” might give up her life in fulfilling her divinely appointed function as bearer of children. As it happens, she survived the production of six offspring, but a third of these children, daughters Elisabeth and Magdalena, did not reach adulthood. Luther could hardly find words to comfort his colleague Justus Jonas when Katharina, his wife, died in her thirteenth childbed.6 Despite their conviction that these outcomes were the will of God, both Luthers and Jonas were devastated. We can imagine the effect on the Jonas progeny. At least the Luthers would have expressed incredulity over the modern theory that late medieval parents did not love their children.7 Luther himself expected every day to die, he told his guests, “but I cannot die.”8 He meant, I think, that he was surprised every morning to find himself still alive.

In some parts of Catholic Europe, warfare and brigandage heightened the populace’s awareness of the end of life. This was less so in Ernestine Saxony, where Wittenberg was located and where Luther spent his career. As Luther preached at Elector Frederick the Wise’s funeral in 1525, this ruler had been a wise and peaceable man who recognized what suffering war brought to civilians and soldiers alike. His brother and successor, Elector Johann the Constant (r. 1525–1532), managed, under pressure from Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, to avoid the field of battle. Johann’s son, Elector Johann Friedrich (r. 1532–1547), did not.9

So potentially grim was life that Luther and his contemporaries, including Catholics, referred to the earthly existence as “a vale of tears” (Jammerthal). They were bound together by a vision of the afterlife that was characterized by the love and radiance of the Heavenly Father, ranks of angels, the presence of all the anointed saints, and the souls in their glorified bodies of all the Christian faithful. So few of the general clergy and laity seemed to be qualified for admission to paradise, however, that, over time, the creative thinkers of the Catholic Church had put forward two theological mechanisms for expanding the ranks of the saved: purgatory, a place of purgation for less-than-perfect souls who could anticipate eventual promotion to the divine presence; and a system of indulgence, or dispensation of time to be spent in purgatory, which would hasten the point of reception into bliss.10 Throughout Luther’s youth and early maturity, so great was some pious people’s longing to be spared long intervening purgation that a veritable marketplace for curtailments and exemptions arose. The church’s quest for money moved it to look the other way when its theology of indulgence was misrepresented to allow Christians, by good deed or purchase, to benefit dead relatives and friends or even themselves in advance of the commitment of new sins.

Bevies of saints were thought to possess intercessory powers with God or, in the Virgin Mary’s case, specifically with her son that, if successful, could increase divine mercy toward the prayerful petitioner. In his momentary distress, Luther had prayed to Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin, but most prominent of all in the late 15th century was Mary herself. “Hail, Mary, Mother of God … Pray for us now and in the hour of our death!” This plea for help in one’s final trial was well known to Luther.

A multilevel ecclesiastical bureaucracy ministered on behalf of the living to the dead and the future dead. Luther was embedded in a system of observances designed to assist the dead in gaining salvation: the singing or saying of masses for the dead, including on multiple anniversaries of their demise; the acquisition of certificates of indulgence; the endowment of priestly positions, altars, their equipage, and works of art; acts of charity; and going on pilgrimages to shrines at distances within the capacity of one’s pocketbook. The future Reformer hoped that, as a sidelight of his trip to Rome in 1510–1511, he might win mitigation of his dear grandfather Heinrich Luder’s assigned time in purgatory, as well as helping himself. Luther availed himself of the church’s structures of penance, confessing (as his confessor thought) to excess. He focused on the relief of his soul in death as much as in life.

The entire monastic system, too, was designed to assist the souls of those who formally undertook the impoverished, celibate and chaste, and obedient life of the monk, nun, or friar. The favor they found with God would be greater than that of people who could not sacrifice their lives in this way. Once again, Luther’s decision to become an Augustinian Eremite reveals his concentration on death’s outcomes for him.

When Martin Luther emerged into German awareness, across the European continent, Christians hired wailing women to watch and mourn aloud over the fresh corpses of their dead relatives. They buried the bodily remains of their families in churchyards, preferably on the south side until population pressure dictated the expansion into the prejudicial north. This was what anthropologists call a primary burial. The financially better off could provide their own winding cloth (shroud). Only elites had coffins. To preserve modesty, parishes loaned shrouds to the impecunious, but these were reclaimed at graveside, when the naked corpse was lowered into its pit. Very widely in Europe, gravediggers excavated the defleshed major bones (skull, tibia, fibula) in due course and deposited them in the local charnel house or ossuary. This was their secondary burial. In German lands, these structures were close to the parish churches in the center of settlement. The bones were visible to the living, but no effort was made, either in churchyard or ossuary, to preserve the integrity of individual skeletons or identify the person to whom they had belonged. This practice made room in the graveyard for the newly deceased, and it reinforced the message to viewers of spiritually preparing for death. It bound the community to its collective forebears.

Luther’s Solution to the Problem of God’s Wrath

Death was constantly in the minds of the spiritually sensitive. Much of late-medieval society did not fit into this category, but Luther did. His preoccupation with meriting the love of God was rooted in the young man’s fear of perpetual alienation from the Heavenly Father. This was his form of torment, experienced in the present and imagined for the indefinite future. By means of persuasion in the pulpit and the compulsory power of his princes, he would succeed in transforming theology and approved practice in relation to death. Nevertheless, folk tradition is a powerful force. Past outlooks would remain visible both in Lutheran prescription and in Luther’s own mentality. Luther carried on the teaching that the Fall of humankind had made all people vulnerable to death. Death was caused by sin, which mortals could not bring under control. Eve and Adam had disobeyed God’s commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which despoiled their initial autonomy. Above all, Luther and his followers continued to express the wish that God should grant them a good “final hour” (Stündlein). By this they meant a final illness that did not overtake them suddenly or move them to cry out in pain or to despair over their sinfulness but that allowed them the time and spiritual reserves to express their faith in God and their confidence in Christ’s redemption. This, they continued to feel, could mitigate the penalties they deserved. To die a “bad death” was, as in the prior Catholic framework, to admit the devil and to risk his victory at the final breath. Or it was to reveal that one was destined for hell by behavior or God’s will. Even though this scheme was incompatible with Luther’s conviction that God was in control of every hair on one’s head and that Christ had atoned for the sins of the faithful, he viscerally continued to voice this hope, as did his contemporaries. At times, the Reformer sensed the problem involved in holding these two opinions at the same time.11

The Bible was the font of Luther’s theological revolution. At an unspecified time when he was a young friar, he later remembered, Luther demanded to read the entirety of scripture.12 He reported at the table, “Thirty years ago, no doctor of theology had a Bible, and where there was one, that [institution] was a monastery.”13 Late-medieval preachers usually based their homilies on Bible stories, and they had probably often heard these stories told. Luther desired to know exactly what the scripture, the original collection of texts, said. He was deeply affected by what he found in its pages, which apropos of any number of topics, including death, provided grist for his mental mill. He was not allowed to retain that copy but had to return it to the friary library. His first advanced degree after the master of arts, however, was the bachelor of Bible, in 1509, and he had to have regular access to scripture in order to engage in his studies and to lecture in this field. He gradually compared church doctrine in all its dimensions to what he read there. He increasingly considered the Bible to be the touchstone of all Christian truth, the point of reference for all those men who had the duty to expound on belief and morals to the laity. Any number of issues could have served as a basis of the Reformer’s initial engagement with the prelacy, but that which especially burdened his illiterate charges was the “economy of death,” the misrepresentation of indulgences. His “Ninety-five Theses against Indulgences” proved to be a gauntlet thrown at the feet of the Catholic Church, a challenge to its teachings on penance and the afterlife.14

When Brother Martin was called to defend himself at the imperial diet at Worms in the spring of 1521, one of the titles that were read to him in the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor and the electors (six of the seven were present) and other great princes was “A Sermon on Preparing to Die” (“Eyn Sermon von der Bereytung zum sterben”), first published in 1519.15 Luther presumably referred to this little work, too, when he rhetorically divided the books before him into separate categories, one of which was simply pastoral and consolatory. He did not think it touched upon doctrine. Even though it owed debts to Johann Staupitz’s “Little Book of Imitating Christ in His Willing Death” (“Büchlein von der Nachfolge des willigen Sterbens Christi”), in Luther’s pages we, along with its Catholic scrutinizers, begin to detect the emerging Reformer’s modification of Catholic thought. The author, to be sure, still urges the dying to call upon, along with God, “the holy angels … the mother of God, all Apostles and dear saints.”16 The overall emphasis, nonetheless, is upon God and upon the self-sacrificing restitution made by Christ on the cross. The dying person is urged to focus upon these in prayerful admission of sin. Awareness of these and the hope of salvation are reinforced by the reception of the eucharistic meal, which by definition was both a sign and a promise to humanity. The presence of a priest is not mentioned, although extreme unction is and, along with confession and the eucharist, presupposes a clerical administrator. The dying person should underscore belief and not concentrate on God’s anger or on sin. One should “occupy oneself far more with the sacraments and their virtues than with sins.” 17 Nor should she concern herself with Divine Providence, which resides in God’s hidden will. This is an early treatise; Luther would develop his thought further. He would quickly come, for example, to consider the invocation of the saints to be “public idolatry.”18 Even by 1527, when his sermons on Genesis of 1523–1524 were published, he interjected instructions for dying that omitted the saints and the Virgin and urged the dying person to focus entirely on the comfort of God’s Word.

When the hour of dying comes and death is before one’s eyes and frightens us with its glance of the devil’s cunning and God’s wrath, so that you think that you are certain to go under and you look around for a place to stay and to step … You must only look and direct all your senses to, and hear nothing other than, what God’s Word says. You should ignore what you feel or at least overcome it. Seize upon the Word and let nobody take it from you. Say to yourself, Here I am in death’s distress and anxiety; but I know that I have been baptized and that God has promised me this and this. Put His Word above everything else, no matter how strongly death presses in!19

This would remain the spirit of Luther’s advice for the balance of his ministry. He did think, additionally, that one ought not to die alone but should have the comfort of pastoral advice and the administration of the Lord’s Supper.

Justification by Faith for All the Faithful

Liturgy is a symbolic language of theology, just as popular ritual expresses the structures and values of secular life. As long as Frederick the Wise lived, Luther was not permitted to alter ecclesiastical ceremony. Change had begun nevertheless. Frederick was aware of this. On his deathbed, Frederick at last consented to receive the Eucharist in both kinds. The new elector, Johann, who was a committed follower of Luther, immediately consulted Luther, Melanchthon, and Gabriel Zwilling on the rites to be employed in laying Frederick to rest.20 Now for the first time, the Reformers could put their new attitudes toward death into signage. Frederick did not receive extreme unction, nor was his body embalmed. Without summoning the magnates of Germany—which would have befitted one of the seven electors of emperors—without the parading of knights on horseback into the sanctuary (Luther remarked that this was barbarous), Frederick was interred within a week of his departure.21 Only those nobles who resided sufficiently close by attended his funeral, along with prominent citizens of Wittenberg and its university. Eight of them bore the prince in his sarcophagus around the town, the church bells knelling, so that the common people could express their grief. They ended in the castle church, which was bedecked with the dead elector’s various coats of arms. There the gathering sang simple hymns in German, probably drawn from the Wittenberg songbook of 1524: “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir” (De profundis) and “Mitten wir im Leben sind” (“In the midst of life we are in death”).22 A German sermon by Luther and a Latin encomium by Melanchthon formed the keynotes of these observances.23 Luther regarded the burial of a sword with Frederick to be an admissible gesture toward his station.24 Luther told his audience that, in the face of such loss, it was acceptable to weep. We should not, he said, go to the extremes of the heathens in our demonstration of affect, but the death of Frederick does genuinely bereave us. Luther never totally discouraged tears, as John Calvin did.

Shortly after Frederick’s death, the visitation of Ernestine parishes began. Although each visitation had its particular agenda—the first one (1528–1529) being to evaluate the pastorate and the second (1532–1533) to establish discipline and survey the adequacy of clerical support—as the inspectors saw opportunities, they began to render prescriptions. Luther and his most trusted friends—men such as Philipp Melanchthon, Justus Jonas, Johann Bugenhagen, Georg Spalatin, Justus Menius, and Friedrich Myconius—took the parts assigned them by the electors, respectively Johann “the Constant” (r. 1525–1532) and Johann Friedrich “the Magnanimous” (r. 1532–1547; d. 1554) and orchestrated a gradual revision of parish life. Luther’s initial goal in relation to death was to bring regularity and dignity to the performance of bedside and sepulchral observances. Yet so low were dying and burial on his list of pastoral priorities in the initial phase of transition that the “Instructions of the Visitors to the Pastors in the Electorate of Saxony” (“Unterricht der visitatoren an die Pfarrherrn im kurfürstentum zu Sachsen. 1528”) ordered simply: “One should treat corpses properly, such that a deacon and a sexton accompany them [to the graveyard]; and the people are to be admonished from the pulpit to go along, and at the interment to sing the German song, ‘In the midst of life’.”25 The details would be filled in not later than by the issuance in 1539 of the so-called “Heinrichs Agenda,” on the shaping of which Luther was informed. The Albertine Duke Heinrich was the Evangelical brother and successor of Luther’s devoutly Catholic nemesis, Duke George the Bearded (d. 1539). The pattern was imitated widely within reforming German lands and certainly in all those northern cities and territories that the Wittenberg pastor, Johannes “Pomeranus” Bugenhagen, guided through their revisions.

The ecclesiastical ordinances that followed upon the visitations were guidelines to be followed. When any member of the congregation or visitor was seriously ill, the pastor was to go to the bedside. Present around it were also likely to be family members and servants, who constituted a larger audience for the messages that were to be articulated. The sick person was invited to confess to the clergyman, but only in a general manner and not according to the Catholic enumeration of sins. This sickroom consultation was another setting within which the pastor carried out “exploration” (Exploratio), a discussion of what the person knew about essential doctrine, including the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, and whether he or she was deeply burdened by sin. After this exploration was to come the admonition (Vermahnung), which might be delivered in a spirit of reprimand but which was also intended to instruct the Christian in the doctrine of the atonement. Judgmental as its label sounds, this function was one of consolation, of offering reassurance of God’s steadfast, deep love, such that He had given His only son over to the Roman executioners in payment for the sins of humankind. Undoubtedly, each pastoral adviser stressed faith in the atonement as essential to salvation. Every sick and well person was to bear this core lesson in awareness throughout life. The cleric reinforced his words with key biblical passages. Provided that the dying person was worthy of absolution, the pastor then administered Communion in both kinds. This was not usually offered to others in the room, for they had not undergone exploration or been absolved of their sins.26 If a person was too ill to manage these more complicated transactions, the pastor might recite and urge the confessee to repeat after him this statement:

I poor sinner confess to the almighty God and to you all [those standing around] all my sins and especially my lack of faith; and that I have sometimes enraged God and my neighbor. I am sorry, and my God knows that I deserve punishment. I run to His mercy and beg for His grace through Jesus Christ my dear lord and savior, Amen.27

This script was accompanied by a command that no corpse should be buried secretly or at night, “but by day and publicly, with a covered bier as had previously been the custom, with the knowledge of the pastor and either in his, the deacon’s or the sexton’s presence, and with the [participation of the] neighbors, with Christian German song.”28 Duke Heinrich’s ordinance likewise embodies the tendency to provide all clerics with a text to be adhered to verbatim. By the time Heinrich’s own younger son, August (r. 1553–1586), approved his own long church ordinance of 1580, rulers had abandoned Luther’s preference for flexibility in textual selections, homiletic treatment, and ritual practice. Only divines at the rank of superintendent could completely dispense with a script. By that time, the Wittenberg Reformer had lain in his tomb in the Castle Church for thirty-four years.

Long before this, however, in 1531, Luther had regaled his dinner guests with a description of how he himself proceeded when visiting a sick person. He leaned close to the afflicted, asking him or her in a friendly manner about the history of the illness, whether she or he had consulted a doctor, and what medication(s) was (were) taken. He then inquired whether the patient was restless toward God or whether he had borne this God-sent tribulation patiently. Was he ready to die if God so desired? This preparedness, he said, was itself a gift of the Holy Spirit. One must commit oneself to God’s will and not be restive. He should persist in faith and pray to God. He should not be afraid, for God was a gracious Father and had given us the assurance and seals of Word and Sacrament so that we poor sinners would be redeemed from the devil and from hell. Christ gave himself so that we could be reconciled with the Father.29 Luther did not take material thanks from ordinary citizens for his visits. To come to them was, he said, his “office and duty.”30

Luther unwittingly launched an activity that would come to flourish throughout Evangelical Germany: the giving of funeral sermons. Luther himself filled the role of preacher twice after the death of Frederick the Wise and again twice upon the demise of Johann the Constant. In the second instance, he told his audience, dismissing Catholic ceremonies and playing on the German word service (dienst), “You know that the greatest service of God is the sermon, and it is not alone the greatest form of worship, but also the best service that we could render in all cases.”31 From approximately midcentury, ecclesiastical authorities increasingly required that even village pastors include a special sermon in each funeral. Especially those given in memory of leading citizens were published and became a subgenre of devotional literature of the time. They circulated widely. Rudolf Lenz has estimated that a quarter million such sermons survive in print.32 Although their initial purpose was to remind all hearers to prepare for death themselves, they came to provide a vehicle for rhetorical display for educated clergymen. At the same time, a section was appended that summarized the life and virtues of the deceased, reciting most especially what a good death the person had undergone. John Calvin took exception to this celebration of a lowly individual who, as an heir of Adam and Eve, was bound to be weighted down with sin. He outlawed funeral sermons in Geneva, and, dignitaries aside, his model was generally adhered to in Reformed Germany. Thus, this homiletic category is chiefly Lutheran. The visitation records reflect a trend of paying the preacher for carefully composed and/or longer such sermons.

In the larger towns of Lutheran Germany, schoolboys learned to sing. Just as monks had previously chanted as they processed toward the burial grounds after one of their own died, so now boys learned the new hymns as they appeared or were taught them orally by their teachers. They led their congregations in hymn singing during regular services, and they accompanied the deceased to their depository in the cemetery. New hymns lay at their disposal, such as “Now Let Us Bury the Body” (“Nun laβ‎t uns den leib begraben”).33 In clement weather, services could be held in the Friedhof; at other times they were held in the church.

Separating the Dead from the Living

As the population continued to expand, burial increasingly took place outside the towns, in grounds specially created for this purpose. City folk sometimes grumbled, desiring to repose in proximity to their relatives, or to be interred within the church, or close to its walls, or under its gutters so that healing water would gush down upon them in perpetuity.34 Instead of beating their subjects with the whip of superstition, Lutheran authorities gave mainly practical explanations of why these shifts must occur. Collected bodies could corrupt the air and cause disease, they maintained. Decaying corpses created a sickening mist within the city.35 Whether new or old, whether within or without the walls or ramparts, cemeteries needed to be securely fenced against rooting pigs and possibly also human excreters. Sextons were charged with keeping churches and graveyards clean. Ossuaries were emptied of their contents, which were carted out to nearby fields and buried. Lutherans no longer had free access to the communal dead. In 1500, grave monuments and privileged burial locations existed almost exclusively for members of the nobility and powerful patricians.

When John Calvin wrote Psychopannychia, his treatise against the Anabaptist teaching that the souls of the dead slept while awaiting the Last Judgment, it is not clear whether he realized that Luther, too, believed that souls slept. The Wittenberger wrote on this subject to his friend Nicholas von Amsdorf early in 1522 that he inclined toward the sleep of souls, but he was not certain about the quality of the sleep of the future-damned.36 Several currents on the fate of souls coexisted in the late Middle Ages, and this was one of the more prominent.37 Just as widespread was the one that Calvin espoused, namely, that the moment a person expired, his soul rose, or sank, to its permanent destination. For the elect, the day of death was in fact the day of birth into eternal life. This view was reflected in the late-medieval ars moriendi illustrations, which showed an infant-like soul being lifted up to paradise in angelic hands or, alternatively, being seized by the black ghouls of Satan and dragged downward. Luther occasionally used the metaphor of Abraham’s or Christ’s lap or bosom, meaning that we repose there until awakened at the End of the World and called to Judgment.38 But ordinarily he reiterated that souls slept in the graveyard along with the bodily remains to which they belonged. Cemeteries were “little beds of rest” (Rühebettlein). As dozens of late medieval paintings testify, even the accursed lay there and awaited the angel Gabriel’s trumpet signal to rise, bodies and souls, and meet the returning Savior. He stated this to the gathered dignitaries at the first funeral service for Frederick the Wise, on May 10, 1525. He and other faithful Christians “sleep in sweet, lovely peace and on the last day certainly will arise and have a body [bodies] lighter und brighter than the sun.”39

Luther’s Own Bereavements

The deaths that affected Martin Luther most immediately were those of his parents and of his and Katharina’s two daughters. The Reformer wrote moving letters of consolation to each of his parents when his brother Jakob reported that each was seriously unwell.40 To his father, he said,

In the midst of your affliction [Schwachheit], may your heart be fresh and comforted. For we have there in that life with God a dependable, trustworthy helper, Jesus Christ, who on our behalf has strangled death along with sin, and who, together with all the angels, sits, watches, and waits for us whenever we should travel out [to him]. We are not allowed to worry or be afraid that we will sink or that the ground will fall out from under us.41

Later, along with sadness, he was relieved that his spirited, outspoken father, Hans, had managed to die a “good death” in 1530. His letter to his mother the following year is a prime example of the literature of spiritual consolation and is itself touching. Luther lovingly expresses his desire to see her, and yet he cannot come away. The theme of his letter is that she should not be afraid of dying, for Christ has overcome the devil, hell, and death. “Be comforted! I have overcome the world!” he quotes to her.42 When his and Katharina’s seven-month-old daughter Elisabeth died in the summer of 1528, he wrote his famous letter to Nicolaus Hausmann, pastor in Zwickau: “My little daughter, my little Elisabeth, has died. It is marvelous how this grieves me; it has left my spirit almost womanish, so much am I moved by compassion. I never could have believed before that parents’ spirits could be so tender toward a child.”43 Yet in 1542, when the couple’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Magdalena, died, the Reformer suppressed his emotion in public, rebuffing the sympathy of neighbors, apparently in an effort to demonstrate his acceptance of God’s will.44 Her death, in fact, deeply grieved both parents. Not only her mother wept profusely. Luther wrote her a loving epitaph, although he knew that his sentiments would not adorn an individual grave marker for her.

  • I, Magdalena, Luther’s dear child
  • Sleep softly with all the saints,
  • And lie in my quiet and rest.
  • Now I am our God’s guest.
  • I was a child of death,
  • Borne by my mother of mortal seed.
  • Now I live and am rich in God,
  • Thanks to Christ’s blood and death.45

The dead did not require posthumous prayers or services. Their outcomes were determined. Christ had died for the benefit of all the world, and one ought not, Luther repeated, to inquire into the matter of predestination. This was God’s secret, remote from human probing. Be confident, he preached, that God loves you.

Life after Death

The life after death was not a matter that preoccupied Luther, but his followers were interested in it. Indeed, as we have seen, many people were frightened of it.46 At the second service for Frederick the Wise, on May 11, Luther again characterized the afterlife: “There we will have no further temptation [Anfechtung] but will be released from all evil, all grieving, weeping, suffering, pain; there will be no more death, and also no more sin dwelling in our flesh; but we will be entirely pure, without all corruption, evil desire, and yearning.”47 On this occasion, he said that the evil dead would arise simultaneously with the elect but would be condemned to eternal fire.48 In August 1532, when he preached the funeral sermons for Elector Johann, he repeated the same basic thought: “One buries the body in all dishonor, it is true, but doesn’t then note that afterward it will arise in all glory. It is buried and sown as corruptible but will arise in incorruption. It is sown in weakness and arises in strength. A natural body is buried, and a spiritual body arises, etc.” 49 On other occasions, perhaps under the stimulus of dinner guests’ pointed questioning, Luther envisioned the life of the body as very similar to that which humans presently experienced, excepting all painful aspects. “I shall arise again and will be able to speak with you. That finger there with the ring on it must return to me. In sum, everything must come into being again, for it is written: ‘God will create a new heaven and a new earth, in which justice shall dwell’ … Nothing but joy and bliss will exist there; for heaven and earth will not consist of desiccated, unfruitful sand.”50 He told his dying daughter that she would arise and “shine like a star, yes, like the sun!”51

Luther’s Good Death

The proof of the pudding was, as ever, in the eating. Luther’s own quite sudden death challenged him to live out the advice he had so sincerely administered to others.52 In January 1546, a most unfriendly time of year in Thuringia, Luther had been persuaded to travel to Mansfeld in another effort to mediate among the counts of Mansfeld. Luther still regarded the county as his homeland. He took all three of his sons along so that they could get together with their cousins there.

In the two weeks since arriving in Eisleben, Luther had been at least one center of attention in addition to the quarreling counts themselves. He had preached four sermons, anointed two new clergymen, confessed his sins twice, been absolved, and received Communion on both occasions. He ate well and slept adequately, in a larger room containing seven beds. Even there he was surrounded by his two younger sons Martin and Paul, his famulus Ambrosius Rudtfeldt, and colleagues Justus Jonas, Michel Coelius (court preacher in Mansfeld), and Johannes Aurifaber (Wittenberg theology student and future Ernestine court preacher). He had access to a separate bedroom should he desire solitude. Despite not feeling well earlier in the day, he went to the main meal on February 17. He ate well. He joked about the hijinks of his sons. He replied positively to the question of whether we would recognize each other facially in heaven. To the end, he was consistent on the resurrection of the familiar body and its inclusion in the afterlife.

Luther began to sense that he might well remain (die) in the very Eisleben in which he had been born and baptized. This appeared to please him, although he had always envisioned passing away at home in Wittenberg. He had known for some time that death was nearby, for he was sixty-two years of age and sickly. He had joked to his friends that he was ready to provide the maggots a “good fat doctor” to feast on. Still, as his chest pained him in his cold sleeping quarters and his attendants—there were servants too—warmed him with heated cloths and cushions, he had a moment of fear.53 He had long warned against the fear of death. This fear was itself the bogeyman, the face and work of the devil. In his memory, he sought the comforting, guiding sayings that he had collected, Jonas reported, precisely for use when his “little hour” arrived.54 Especially Jonas and Coelius, pastors long experienced in attending the dying, stepped into the breach and brought him back to concentration on the atoning love of Christ. He began to pray: “My heavenly Father, eternal, merciful God, You have revealed to me Your dear son, our lord Jesus Christ. Him I have taught, him have I confessed, him I have loved, and him I have honored as my savior and redeemer.” He then turned to other reassuring texts, recited in Latin: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, redimisti me deus veritatis.”55 From these he did not deviate as doctors, noblemen and noblewomen, and servants exerted themselves to save him. Despite the administration of shaved “unicorn” horn in wine and other medicinal rarities, the Reformer could not be revivified.56

The accounts of Luther’s demise reveal an ongoing adherence to the concept of a “good death,” one still modeled on the art-of-dying (ars moriendi) literature of the late 15th century. Those who survived did not so much shape Luther’s passing to conform to late-medieval ideals as they perceived it within their inherited, internalized framework. In their telling(s), they lent it all the features of an idealized parting from the world. They implicitly did this in part through the device of ritual equivalency. That is, Luther had not called in a priest or pastor to receive his last confession and administer the viaticum, but during the immediately preceding two weeks, he had, they reported, confessed on two occasions, been absolved, and received the sacrament of the altar. He had not undergone the rite of anointment, but he himself had consecrated two new clergymen just before he died, even if not literally with chrism. He had not heard the Vermahnung, the admonition to believe in the redeeming power of Christ’s death on the cross, from another cleric; but he had himself preached four times while visiting the County of Mansfeld. Inasmuch as all his sermons were united in directly or indirectly drawing attention to the atonement, he had long since appropriated this core lesson for himself. Those present at his bedside strained themselves to demonstrate to the public, and especially the skeptical Catholic public, that Luther had departed in utter fidelity to the teachings he had enunciated during his career.57 Justus and Coelius asked in a loud voice directed into his ear, “Doctor Martin, reverend father, do you desire to die upon Christ and the teaching that you have taught in his name?” They testified that he answered so that one could clearly hear it, “Yes!” There is no reason to doubt their hearing this word; they were convinced of it. In the moments before expiring, Luther showed no sign of unrest. His head was turned to the (favorable) right side. His breath was not labored but soft and regular. He did not snore. “He went to sleep in the Lord, cleanly [seuberlich] and with great patience, between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning.” 58 His was, they meant to show, a thoroughly good death. They experienced it as such. It was important that the artist Lucas Furtenagel validate this report with his own, visual, testimony, rendering the features of the Reformer completely at peace, without a trace of hellish torment.

Luther’s followers remained deeply interested in death and the afterlife. The pertinent literature of the second half of the 16th century and beyond burgeoned. Among the Reformer’s personal friends, Johannes Bugenhagen, Veit Dietrich, Wenceslaus Link, Georg Major, Johannes Mathesius, and Georg Spalatin published books on preparing to die. All adhered to their founder’s basic teachings. Many of his other professional colleagues, including his opponents, wrote such books as well.59 They responded to an urgent demand. Luther recognized that it was precisely in the face of death that the Christian’s greatest temptation (Anfechtung) lay, and thus where she most needed help. Devils and angels still contested on the dying person’s bedposts. Yet in his overriding cosmic view, God controlled the devil and determined all outcomes. He and his contemporaries appear to have desired to “cover both bases”: on one hand, to die a good death just in case this influenced one’s final destination, and, on the other, to affirm Divine Providence. To the end of his life, Luther shared the need both for a presentable final hour and for assurances of God’s unwavering love.

Further Reading

Babendererde, Cornell. Sterben, Tod, Begräbnis und liturgisches Gedächtnis bei weltlichen Reichsfürsten des Spätmittelalters. Ostfildern, Germany: Jan Thorbecke, 2006.Find this resource:

Döring-Hirsch, Erna. Tod und Jenseits im Spätmittelalter. Berlin: Curtius, 1927.Find this resource:

Karant-Nunn, Susan C. The Reformation of Ritual: An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.Find this resource:

Koslofsky, Craig M. The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany, 1450–1700. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2000.Find this resource:

Krentz, Natalie. “Protestantische Identität und Herrschaftsrepräsentation: Das Begräbnis Friedrichs des Weisen, Kurfürst von Sachsen (1525).” In Symbolik in Zeiten von Krise und Gesellschaftlichem Umbruch: Darstellung und Wahrnehmung vormoderner Ordnung im Wandel. Edited by Elizabeth Harding and Natalie Krentz, 115–130. Münster, Germany: Rhema, 2011.Find this resource:

Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Leroux, Neil R. Martin Luther as Comforter: Writings on Death. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 133. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Merkt, Andreas. Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005.Find this resource:

Reinus, Austra. Reforming the Art of Dying: The Ars Moriendi in the German Reformation (1519–1528). Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.Find this resource:

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Les revenants: Les vivants et les morts dans la société médiévale. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.Find this resource:

Schottroff, Luise. Die Bereitung zum Sterben: Studien zu den frühen reformatorischen Sterbebüchern. Refo500 Academic Studies 5. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012. With bibliography of 16th-century works, pp. 107–135.Find this resource:

Schubart, Christof. Die Berichte über Luthers Tod und Begräbnis, Texte und Untersuchungen. Weimar, Germany: Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1917.Find this resource:


(1.) For theological revisions, see Austra Reinus, Reforming the Art of Dying: The Ars Moriendi in the German Reformation (1519–1528) (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), and the astute review by Jared Wicks, Theological Studies 69 (2008): 923–924. Of the older literature, fundamental is Helmut Appel, Anfechtung und Trost im Spätmittelalter und bei Luther, Schriften des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte 165 (Leipzig: M. Heinsius Nachfolger, 1938).

(2.) For the medieval background, see Arnold Angenendt, Geschichte der Religiosität im Mittelalter, 2nd ed. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2000), 659–750, and Erna Döring-Hirsch, Tod und Jenseits im Spätmittelalter (Berlin: Curtius, 1927).

(3.) “Ob man vor dem sterben fliehen möge 1527,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar, Germany: Böhlau, 1883–1996) [hereafter, by custom, WA for Weimarer Ausgabe], Schriften 23, 338–386.

(4.) WA BR 4: 1164, 275, dated November 1, 1527, and 4: 1165, 276, dated November 4, 1527.

(5.) Ibid., 276.

(6.) WA BR 10: 3829, 226–228, dated December 26, 1542. Jonas’s wife had been a close friend of Katharina Luther’s.

(7.) All readers will recognize that I am referring to the theory of Philippe Ariès, in Centuries of Childhood …, which gave rise to much scholarly discussion, nearly all highly critical. See Luther’s declaration of parents’ love for their children, WA TR 1: 1032, 521, and WA Schriften 24, 614, In Genesin Declamationes. 1527: Über das erste Buch Mose. Predigten. Cf. Neil R. Leroux, Martin Luther as Comforter: Writings on Death, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 133 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 187–202, for Leroux’s compilation of Luther’s letters to bereft parents.

(8.) WA TR 2: 1594, 145.

(9.) Emperor Charles V captured Johann Friedrich at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547, a year after Luther’s death. He transferred the electoral dignity to Johann Friedrich’s hated Albertine cousin, Duke Moritz of Saxony, whose descendants retained the title.

(10.) Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Jean-Claude Schmitt, Les revenants: Les vivants et les morts dans la société médiévale (Paris: Gallimard, 1994); and, more recently, Andreas Merkt, Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005), and Guillaume Cuchet, ed., Le purgatoire: Fortune historique et historiographique d’un dogme (Paris: Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2012), made up of seventeen coordinated essays that collectively indicate a sizable additional literature. “Widerruf vom Fegefeuer,” WA Schriften 30: 2, 360–390, written on the Festung Coburg in response to his fear that Melanchthon would make concessions to the Catholic negotiators in Augsburg.

(11.) See, e.g., WA TR 5: 5494, 190, in giving advice to Georg Rörer.

(12.) Johannes Mathesius, Historie, Von des Ehrwirdigen in Gott Seligen thewren Manns Gottes, Doctoris Martini Luthers, anfang, lehr, leben vnd sterben, Alles ordendlich der Jarzal nach, wie sich alle sachen zu jeder zeyt haben zugetragen (Nuremberg, Germany: n.p., 1567), this story in sermon 1, fol. v (recto).

(13.) WA TR 2: 1522, 129.

(14.) “Resolutiones disputationum de indulgentiarum virtute. 1518,” WA Schriften 1, 525–628. This is the work as it was published in 1518. It contains ninety-five theses.

(15.) WA Schriften 2, 685–607. This was popular and widely printed. For the publication record, see WA Schriften 2, 680–684.

(16.) Ibid., 686.

(18.) “Die Ordnungen Luthers. Die Ernestinischen und Albertinischen Gebiete,” in Die evangelischen Kirchenordnungen des XVI. Jahrhunderts [hereafter KO], ed. Emil Sehling, 1/1 (Leipzig: O. R. Reisland, 1902), “Wittenbergische Reformation. 1545,” 215.

(19.) WA Schriften 24, 184, In Genesin Declamationes. 1527: Über das erste buch Mose. Predigten.

(20.) For an account of Johann’s funeral, WA TR 2: 2607b, 542–543.

(21.) For a survey of treatment of the remains of members of Frederick’s class, see Cornell Babendererde, Sterben, Tod, Begräbnis und liturgisches Gedächtnis bei weltlichen Reichsfürsten des Spätmittelalters (Ostfildern, Germany: Jan Thorbecke, 2006), and, specifically on Frederick, 119–120.

(22.) On the development of Lutheran hymns specifically for funerals, see WA Schriften 35, 304–307.

(23.) See the comprehensive and analytical treatment by Natalie Krentz, “Protestantische Identität und Herrschaftsrepräsentation: Das Begräbnis Friedrichs des Weisen, Kurfürst von Sachsen (1525),” in Symbolik in Zeiten von Krise und Gesellschaftlichem Umbruch: Darstellung und Wahrnehmung vormoderner Ordnung im Wandel, ed. Elizabeth Harding and Natalie Krentz (Münster, Germany: Rhema, 2011), 115–130.

(24.) WA BR 3: 862, 487–488.

(25.) Sehling, KO, 1/1, 169–170, “Unterricht der visitatoren an die pfarrherrn im kurfürstenthum zu Sachsen. 1528.”

(26.) Sehling, KO, 1/1, 269–271 (a rather long prescriptive text), “Kirchenordnunge zum anfang, für die pfarherrn in herzog Heinrichs zu Sachsen u. g. h. fürstenthum. 1539.”

(27.) Sehling, KO, 1/1, 192, “Gemeine verordnung und artikel der visitation in Meissen und der Voitlandt den herrschaften … zugestellt. 1533.”

(28.) Sehling, KO, 1/1, ibid.,189. My italics.

(29.) WA TR 2: 2194b, 356–357.

(30.) ibid., 357.

(31.) WA Schriften 36, 237, “Zwo Predigt uber [sic] der Leiche des Kurfürsten Hertzog JOHANS zu Sachsen.”

(32.) Rudolf Lenz, De mortuis nil nisi bene? Leichenpredigten als multidisziplinäre Quelle, Marburger Personalschriften-Forschungen 10 (Sigmaringen, Germany: Jan Thorbecke, 1990), 21. The Herzog August Bibliothek is renowned for its collection of funeral sermons.

(33.) See note 22.

(34.) Essential background is Craig M. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany, 1450–1700 (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2000), 40–77; Susan C. Karant-Nunn, “Banning the Dead and Ordering the Living,” chap. 5 in The Reformation of Ritual: An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 138–189 and, on this point, 178–179.

(35.) Koslofsky, Reformation of the Dead, 52–53, 64, 76.

(36.) WA BR 2: 449, 422–424, dated January 13, 1522.

(37.) Angenendt, Geschichte der Religiosität, 695–750.

(38.) For some background, Ibid., 686, 688, 699. In Luther, see Julius Köstlin, The Theology of Luther in Its Historical Development and Inner Harmony, trans. Charles Hay from 2nd German edition (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1897), 579. In WA TR 3: 3029, 147, Luther refers to “vnsers Herrn Gotts Schoβ‎” as the resting place of the blessed dead.

(39.) WA Schriften 17/1, 204. Cf. WA TR 2: 2576, 530.

(40.) WA BR 5: 1529, dated February 15, 1530, 238–241, to his father.

(41.) Ibid., 240.

(42.) WA BR 6: 1820, 103–106.

(43.) WA BR 4: 511, dated August 5, 1528.

(44.) WA TR 5: 5494, 191.

(45.) WA TR 5: 5490a, 186; other versions are given 185–187.

(46.) WA TR 2: 1944, 269. Luther here wonders why the heathens wrote attractively of death in their day.

(47.) Ibid., 225.

(48.) Ibid., 226.

(49.) WA Schriften 36, 244, “Zwo Predigt.”

(50.) WA TR 2: 1830, 230–231.

(51.) WA TR 5: 5494, 191.

(52.) Christof Schubart, Die Berichte über Luthers Tod und Begräbnis, Texte und Untersuchungen (Weimar, Germany: Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1917), 136–145, contains all the collected documents pertaining to Luther’s death, as well as a significant bibliography of literature published up till 1917, including that on historiographical controversies.

(53.) This moment was by no means sufficient to support the arguments of Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), who depicts Luther as preoccupied with death. See Schubart, Die Berichte, no. 69, detailed description, “Justus Jonas, Michael Cölius und Johannes Aurifaber, Bericht über Luthers Tod und Begräbnis,” Wittenberg mid-March 1546, 59–68, here at 62.

(54.) WA Schriften 30/2, 697–710, “Etliche tröstliche Vermanungen in sachen das heilige Wort betreffend (Sprüche mit denen sich Luther getröstet hat) 1530.”

(55.) From Schubart, Die Berichte, no. 1, Jonas’s initial report to Elector Johann Friedrich, dictated within two hours after Luther expired, 4–5.

(56.) For primary sources, see Schubart as above and my own study, “Martin Luther’s Good Death,” in “The Personal Luther: Cultural Historical Essays on the German Reformer,” as yet unpublished book manuscript, 2016.

(57.) For a summary taste of the Catholic insistence on a violent death, Hartmann Grisar, Luther, vol. 3, Am Ende der Bahn—Rückblicke (Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herdersche Verlagshandlung, 1912), 851–855.

(58.) Schubart, Die Berichte, no. 2, 7–10, here at 9, signed by Jonas and Ambrosius Rudtfeldt, the famulus.

(59.) Luise Schottroff, Die Bereitung zum Sterben: Studien zu den frühen reformatorischen Sterbebüchern, Refo500 Academic Studies 5 (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), bibliography of 16th-century works, 107–135.