The Reformation of the Dead

This is a short easy to read book – but probably more for people who are particularly interested, because it has a rather narrow focus (that’s probably because it was Koslofsky’s dissertation).  And if it sounds like something you’re interested in, you’ll probably have to hunt it down at your local public library (or even your local university library), because the cheapest I found it for sale online is $140!

Craig M. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead:  Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany, 1540-1700 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

“Oh Lord Jesus!  Take my spirit up to you!”  These were the last words of the sixteenth century Lutheran bishop Hermann Bonnus (1).  His brother, Gerlach, had stayed with him throughout the night, praying for him until he died.  But once Hermann died, Gerlach’s praying stopped.  In his book, Craig Koslofsky uses this cessation of prayer at the moment of death to symbolize the most profound and lasting effect of the Protestant Reformation:  the radical separation of the dead from the world of the living.  Koslofsky utilizes primary sources to show that this was not just a spiritual separation; he also asserts that by studying cemetery location and burial rituals, one may ascertain that the Reformation thinkers also meant to physically separate the living from the dead.

The Reformation of the Dead opens by providing the reader with not only the historiography on the subject, but also by supplying an anthropological approach to the study of death and ritual.  Koslofsky contends that because death was such a ubiquitous burden in the sixteenth century (manifested by high mortality rates), the investigation of both the history behind and the anthropological significance of death and burial rituals can offer a unique window into that society.  It is with this theoretical understanding that Koslofsky moves forward into his material.

Part one of the book deals with the clear severance of the dead from the different spheres of everyday life.  Koslofsky begins with the spiritual separation of those who had left this world.  The Protestant notion that one could reach salvation through faith alone placed the majority of responsibility on the individual.  At the same, it inherently called into question the earlier practice of intercession.  For if all responsibility was now on the individual, the prayers of the living and the intercession of the saints on behalf of the deceased was now irrelevant to a soul’s salvation.  The effects of this change in ideology manifested themselves most obviously in the way the Reformation leaders dealt with the idea Purgatory.  Since the twelfth century, Purgatory had been viewed as a necessary place of postmortem purification, a stage between death and the eternal afterlife in which the prayers of the living and the saints helped determine how long a soul would linger before passing on.  Koslofsky argues that, contrary to popular belief, the first step Protestants took to reconcile Purgatory with their conceived impossibility of intercession was not to abolish Purgatory altogether.  Leaders like Gansfort, Karlstadt, and Luther did not deny Purgatory; they just asserted that it was a place of purification and no one, not even the Church, could affect the state of the souls there (34).  It was not until two decades into the Reformation that Luther renounced the existence of Purgatory, claiming instead that souls “slept” after death until they “awoke” at the Day of Judgment.  In face of the disputes in the early years of the Reformation on the adaptation or existence of Purgatory, there was one point of agreement among German reformers: the separation of the dead from the living.

Next, Koslofsky addresses the placement of cemeteries in the effort to physically remove the dead from the world of the living.  Traditionally, it was customary to bury the deceased within the city walls in the church graveyard.  In the thirteenth century, the Black Death brought temporary periods of extramural burials for sanitary reasons, but by the sixteenth century, growing populations and greater concern for hygiene meant that it was slowly becoming the norm to bury the dead in cemeteries outside of the city.  In 1527, Luther added a religious element to the debate:  since intercession and burial masses were irrelevant, so was where you were buried (46).  A body’s spatial nearness to the church now played no role, so Protestant leaders supported the medical argument for extramural burial, because it simultaneously added a very visual emphasis of the separation of the living and the dead.

In part two of his book, Koslofsky discusses the affects these theological views of death had on the funeral and burial rituals.  The reformation did away with all of the traditional burial rituals, most notably the funeral mass for its emphasis on intercession.  It was not clear at first, however, with which rituals the old ones should be replaced.  It was not until 1550 that new Lutheran funeral rituals were in place:  a cleric-led funeral procession to the gravesite in which members of the community took part, and the cemetery sermon that focused on honoring the life of the deceased.

Koslofsky then highlights another interesting turn of events in the history of the Lutheran funeral in seventeenth century Germany.  He explains how a more private, nocturnal burial without the presence of clerics, which was once reserved for dishonorable burials, became the funeral of choice for the noble class.  By 1700, this nocturnal funeral, known as a Beisetzung, had spread from being the preference of the elite class to that of all classes (148).  A century later, the daylight funeral became the norm again, but according to Koslofsky, the effect of the Beisetzung – a funeral centered on family rather than the church and Christian community – had become permanent for Protestant funerals.

One critique of the book states that Koslofsky goes too far in giving credit to the Reformation for the move to extramural burials.  However, Koslofsky makes it clear that Protestant leaders never claimed that it was the Reformation that prompted extramural cemeteries.  In fact, Koslofsky argues that it was Catholic opposition that tried to tie extramural burial with the cause of the Reformation.

Despite this criticism, the research presented in The Reformation of the Dead provides unique insight into Germany during the Protestant Reformation.  Koslofsky’s work is well written and employs a wide range of primary sources, such as city ordinances, burial records, as well as personal letters and church visitation reports, to present a comprehensive view of the debate over death and burial rituals.  He then calls on experts from the field of anthropology to help explain the different ideological and material changes that separated the living from the dead.

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