Did the Blessed Virgin Mary Die?

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

In Ariel’s Song from The Tempest, we hear that Ferdinand’s apparently dead father has undergone a sea-change into something rich and strange. St. Paul tells us about a similar “sea-change” into the glory of immortality at the last trumpet.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality (1 Cor 15:51-53).

St. Paul tells us that the believers who are still alive at the Second Coming will be changed in an instant from an earthly corruptible body to a heavenly body. St. Thomas says this will occur through Christ’s glorification of the souls of the blessed. The glory will flow from the souls into the bodies and raise them up to a heavenly body. Pope Pius XII declared in his apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus in 1950 that the Blessed Virgin Mary already has undergone this sea-change to an immortal heavenly body and was assumed into heaven at the end of her life.

Although most of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have taught that Mary died and was raised from the dead before being assumed into heaven, a number of twentieth century theologians argue that Mary never died but was transferred from earthly to heavenly existence without undergoing death.[1] Among them, Charles De Koninck challenges Theodule Maré, who suggests that Pope Pius XII was very careful in his formulation of the dogmatic formula to say “at the end of her earthly life” [expleto terrestris vitae cursu] rather than “at her death” to leave open the possibility that Mary never died.[2]

Fr. Maré wishes to preserve Mary from the slightest hint of corruption or dishonor. Since she had absolutely no sin, not even original sin, she did not in the least earn the punishment of death or corruption. He further argues that out of the same filial piety that led Jesus to prevent her body from undergoing corruption, he prevented her from undergoing the corruption of death, the separation of soul from body, altogether. “Death with all it signifies for a simple human creature could not possibly avoid involving some character of disgrace and forfeiture, incompatible with her Immaculate Conception and her divine maternity.”[3]

Mare adds in a note, “This mariale body would have fallen suddenly into the condition of a simple cadaver, separated from her soul and personality.”[4] Fr. Maré is pointing to the fact that when the soul parts from the body, the body must acquire a new lesser form or forms. Mary’s body would no longer have been hers, but a corpse or a multiplicity of tissues. Besides, the soul only parts from the body when the body has deteriorated to the point that it is no longer sufficiently disposed to be the matter of a human soul. Death seems inevitably to entail corruption, even if the corpse should be miraculously preserved from further deterioration. 

Charles De Koninck, in his book of essays on the Assumption, The Piety of the Son, adds a further reason for the lack of fittingness to Mary being dead. Since she is the Mother of God as a person, through her body, by which she bore Jesus in her womb, death would be the revoking of that maternal relation for an interval of time. She would no longer be the Mother of God, but the soul of the one who was the Mother of God. She would no longer have that blessed relation if she were to cease being a person.

In support of this, DeKoninck points out that when St. Thomas argues that Christ’s divinity remains united to his body as well as to his soul after his death, he gives as an argument that God’s grace is irrevocable except for fault.[5] The hypostatic union being the greatest grace ever given, it should not be removed from Christ’s body even when he is dead. Similarly, DeKoninck argues, the relation of maternity to her divine Son should never be removed from Mary, as it would be if Mary were dead for any interval of time:

What God concedes by grace he does not take away save by some prior fault. But how could God have permitted that the Mother of his Son should cease to exist even for an interval of time no matter how brief? . . .The grace of maternity would have been revoked without prior fault.[6]

Yet, at the same time, DeKoninck argues against Fr. Maré that Mary did indeed die. How can he argue both that Mary died and that she underwent absolutely no corruption nor ever ceased to be the Mother of God? He first argues that she died with a careful exegesis of the Bull from the words of Pope Pius XII as well as from the many citations the pope gives from the Fathers and saints. Second, he argues that while Mary did die, as is sufficiently clear from the authorities cited in the Bull, she did not remain dead for any period of time. In this article, I will first trace his argument and then consider a number of problems with this solution in order to contemplate the meaning of Mary’s death, resurrection and assumption for the believer.

Mary’s Death

First, he argues that Pope Pius’s own words make clear what the definition might not make absolutely clear. He says when anyone hears the words: “having completed the course of her earthly life,” in every other case they would understand it to mean “having died.” Lest anyone should think, it has a different meaning in Mary’s case, the context of the whole letter makes the meaning clear. The pope says in paragraph 5, “she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.” De Koninck points out that she could not have had her body redeemed if it had not first been separated from her soul:

4. Christ overcame sin and death by his own death, and one who through Baptism has been born again in a supernatural way has conquered sin and death through the same Christ. Yet, according to the general rule, God does not will to grant to the just the full effect of the victory over death until the end of time has come. And so it is that the bodies of even the just are corrupted after death, and only on the last day will they be joined, each to its own glorious soul.

5. Now God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should be exempted from this general rule. She, by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.

He also points to paragraph 20 in the Bull which speaks both of Mary’s dead body and her death:

The holy Fathers and the great Doctors . . . spoke of this doctrine [the Assumption] as something already known and accepted by Christ's faithful. They presented it more clearly. . . . bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body (exanime corporis) of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death (ex morte) her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son.[7]

If his mention of the “dead body” exanime corporis and “out of death” ex mortem do not make it perfectly clear that Pope Pius meant to indicate Mary’s death by the phrase “at the end of her earthly life” the Pope proceeds to present many quotations both from the liturgy and the Fathers and saints that mention Mary’s death and assumption to heaven. Nowhere does he caution against their teaching of Mary’s death coming before her glorification.

After arguing that the context of the Bull makes it clear that Pope Pius is saying that Mary did die in his definition, De Koninck next asks why Pope Pius XII should use the phrase, “having completed the course of her earthly life,” in the definition instead of “having died.” He suggests that it was on purpose to emphasize how different, mysterious, and glorious her death was. He proceeds to explain how different and mysterious her death was.

Mary’s Unique Mysterious Death

De Koninck first carefully defines death. It is not the period of time leading up to the separation of soul and body. That is what we call “dying.” Nor is it the last instant when the soul is still united to the body because there is no last instant. In every substantial change, as Aristotle and St. Thomas argue, there is no last instant when the old form is present but only a last period of time. There is only a first instant when the new form is present. Otherwise, there would be two instants in time next to each other which is impossible. Thus death, speaking most formally, is the first instant of the soul’s separation from the body. In De Koninck’s own words,

As for the noun “death,” it most strictly means the final instant [of dying] in which the living thing first is no more, and it can be used in this sense only of this unique instant [Or death] can mean both the instantaneous term and the [following] state of death of which this instant is then the principle.[8]

Second, he applies this to the case of Mary. He says that there was a last period of time when Mary was alive and then a first instant when her soul was no longer informing an earthly body but a heavenly body. That first instant of eternal life for the soul of a saint, according to him, is what we generally name death, speaking most formally. It is the term of the process of dying. In Mary’s case alone, it was also the first instant of her bodily heavenly existence.

He supports his claim with quotes from some of the Fathers who speak of her death as the entrance to eternal life. John Damascene says in his First Homily on the Dormition of Our Lady, “I cannot call your holy assumption a death, but rather a dormition, a migration, or better still an immigration; for in emigration from your body, you immigrate to a better life.”[9] In his Second Homily, John Damascene says, “How then could you taste death, O Immaculate One! Death will be for you the bridge to life, the ladder to heaven, a passage to eternity . . . For you, death is life, far superior to that which you led here.”[10]

St. Amadeus of Lausanne, whom Pope Pius also quotes in the Bull says in a homily, “By her glorious death, she migrated, if one can call the passage to life death. Moreover, to state the truth, it is life itself, since it makes death die and saves a body from death.” DeKoninck does not insist on his theory of the instantaneous death and resurrection of Mary. He puts it forth only as a conjecture, but one that makes it possible to both hold that Mary died and that Christ never permitted his mother to suffer any corruption whatsoever.

I hesitantly bring forth three objections to De Koninck’s doctrine:

1. Not Death

It seems to me that De Koninck wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants Mary to have died like her Son and us, but to have had no time of separation of soul and body. Death is, most formally, the separation of soul and body but it is not clear to me that there is a true separation of soul and body in De bKoninck’s doctrine. If the soul first informs a mortal body and then in an instant is glorified and informs an immortal body, why is one forced to say that there is a separation of soul from Mary’s body and a dissolution to prime matter? The same soul is informing the same body before and after the glorification. The glorified body is radically different, but it is the same matter informed by the same soul. Otherwise, it would not be a resurrection of Mary’s body. Furthermore, the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 says, “We will not all die, but we will all be changed,” (1 Cor 15: 51). St. Paul says the instantaneous change from perishable to imperishable bodies is not death, although he is not speaking formally as a philosopher.

2. Removes Something from the Configuration of Mother with Son

One of the principal reasons for the doctrine of the Assumption is the intimate union of Mother with Son as the Bull says, she is “as always sharing his lot” (ejusque semper participantem sortem).[11] She should never be separated from her Son and his destiny. Mary, like Jesus, did not deserve to die. Immaculate from conception, she had absolutely no sin. Yet the Fathers taught that she followed the example of her immaculate Son in dying, being laid in the tomb, and then being raised and borne up to heaven.

John of Damascus says in a homily, “She submits her unsullied body to death . . . since the Lord of nature himself did not refuse the test of death.”[12] And again, in another passage, “She yields to the law established by her own Son, and as a daughter of the old Adam, she undergoes the ancestral trial since even her Son did not refuse it.”[13] And in a hymn in Mary’s honor, he says, “Once her very offspring, mysterious God . . . Died and was buried, Sharing willingly our lot; She too must share the sepulcher, She who had conceived him in purity!”[14]

John of Thessalonica’s homily, like most of the earliest homilies describes Mary being placed in a tomb and even speaks of her being raised on the third day and the shroud alone being found in the tomb:

The Apostles, however, lifted up the precious body of our most glorious lady, Mary, the Mother of God and ever-virgin and placed it in a new tomb . . . They remained in that place . . . for three days. And after the third day they opened the sarcophagus to venerate the precious tabernacle of her who deserves all praise, but found only her grave garments; for she had been taken away by Christ, the God who became flesh from her, to the place of her eternal, living inheritance.[15]

The earliest Fathers’ sermons on Mary’s Dormition refer to an apocryphal legend of her death, but they all see theological meaning in her dying like her Son and being placed in a tomb like him in order to increase her perfect conformation to him.

3. A Feast of Hope

One of the reasons for celebrating Mary’s Assumption is that it increases hope in our own resurrection and glorification in heaven. St. Thomas says one reason Christ willed to be buried, before being raised, was to increase our hope of rising from the grave as he did.[16] But Mary’s resurrection and Assumption should give us, in one way, even more hope, since she is not a divine person as Christ is, but a purely human person like us. It is precisely her solidarity with us that gives us hope of rising from the grave. If she did not die the way we do and lie in the grave, her resurrection and assumption would not give us quite as strong hope.


Despite these objections, it seems to me that the question of Mary’s death cannot be answered with certainty either way. It may be that Pope Pius XII used the phrase “at the end of her earthly life” instead of “death” to avoid including Mary’s death in the definition and giving it the same theological note of infallibility. Yet the fact that he refers to her death elsewhere in the Bull and to the almost unanimous tradition of the Fathers and doctors of the Church gives it a degree of authority, requiring religious submission of mind and will.

I think De Koninck argues well that Mary did die, but whether her death was an instantaneous transformation or lasted for a span of time seems impossible to attain certainty about. Her death was, in any case, the glorious entrance to eternal life. “As John Damascene writes, “Death will be for you the bridge to life, the ladder to heaven, a passage to eternity.”[17] She is risen whole and entire, Christ’s mother and our mother, standing at his side, living to intercede for us. Queen assumed into heaven, pray for us.

[1] Lawrence Everett, C.Ss.R.T. Mary’s Death and Bodily Assumption, Mariology (Milwaukee, 1957) refers to a number of theologians holding this position including: Gallus, Ad Immortalitatem B.M.Virgine, Marianum Vol 12 (1950), 26-534. Gabriele M. Roschini, Il problema della morte di Maria SS dopo la Constituzione Dogmatica “Munificentissimus Deus,” in Marianum, Vol. 13, 1951.

[2] Theodule Maré, Quelle fut la fin terrestre de l’Immaculée Mère de Dieu, Notre-Dame du Cap, Sanctuaire du Cap,P.Q., July, 1952 pp3-9 and 27  cited in Charles De Koninck, The Piety of the Son, Translated by Ralph McInerny. Privately circulated, 109. La Piété du Fils: Études sur l’Assomption (Québec : Les Presses Universitaires Laval, 1954).

[3] Art. cit. p.6, cited in Piety, 109.

[4] Art. cit. p. 8, cited in Piety, 109.

[5] ST III. q5. a.2. c.

[6] Piety of the Son, 204.

[7] M.D. par. 20 and Piety 84.

[8] Piety, 174.

[9] Quoted in Piety, 216.

[10] John Damascene, Homily II as quoted in Piety, 218.

[11] Munificentissimus Deus, 38.

[12] On the Dormition of Mary; Early Patristic Homilies, Translation by

Brian Daley, 194.

[13] Dormition 206.

[14] Dormition 242.

[15] Dormition, 67.

[16] S.T.III.1.c

[17] John Damascene, Homily II as quoted in Piety, 218.

Featured Image: Nicholas Poussin, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1630: Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Susan Waldstein

Susan Waldstein is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. 

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