The Dead and the Living. A struggle for ethernal peace.

What preserves the influence and the practice of a religion is given by the density of its traditions and its liminality. This very strong bound that perpetuated Christianity in the memory of a long generation of believers is the connection of dead with the living, but the practices and the customs of burials were not entirely unique: ‘The Egyptians worried greatly about the malevolent wandering spirit. This was a large part of the reason for the practice of mummification. If one’s body remained intact, one’s soul stayed with it and did not disturb the living’[1]

The fear of death is the fear of unknown and, thus, there had to be found a way to understand and check on the afterlife before we die. In the Early Modern Period, Christianity as a dominant aspect of the European people. In the same time, ghosts and other entities that appeared to humans either covered in mystery or self-revealing, and they also represented a great component of 1400s – 1700s culture.[2]

The true life for Christians is not the actual but the one after death. The Catholics expected the eternal bliss after serving the punishment in purgatory. On the other hand, the protestants believed that our soul had to be elected in order to get passage to heaven. Thus, as they rejected the existence of the Purgatory, there was no purpose in the prayers for the dead. The only rise of the dead was the resurrection on the Judgment Day. The Reformation taught free salvation, given by God – not related at all to merit – and preaching “the godly deceased are not lost forever but left for a time, not gone away from us, but sent to God before us”.[3]V0035170 Purgatory. Etching by E. Henne after P. Bruegel the elder.                                              Purgatory. Etching by E. Henne after P. Bruegel the elder.

In this context, the Catholics were not that sceptical about the return of the dead. On the contrary, there were chances for a person’s unnatural death or sinful life to have a restless afterlife.[4] It was possible even a physical return and not only the soul of the dead. In Breslau, 1591, a man had committed suicide but in order for him to get a proper burial, his wife has hidden the fact. Yet, the truth has revealed itself when a ghost resembling the features of the dead man started terrorising the people of that town. They exhumed the body and noticed that ‘he had grown more sensibly fleshy since his last interment.’ The decision was taken: ‘they cut off the head, arms, and legs of the corpse, opening his back, took out his heart, which was as fresh and entire as in a calf new killed’.[5]

The souls appear to have their unique way of communicating with the living and sometimes their message cannot be fully comprehended by the living people. However, there are cases when the dead come in immaterial form and reveal themselves to their loved ones in order to ask for help. They communicate and assure the living upon the existence of afterlife and, moreover, they suffer as the sinners were expected to. And, of course, they are a reminder to our world that our life will fulfil its purpose unto God and Christian life.

A wide belief among people was that the celebration of the Mass has the power to shorten the punishment given in purgatory to those who have sinned (However, this started to change gradually in the sixteenth century). For a fee, the priests would spend their days reading masses for those in despair at the demand of their caring living relatives. In 14th century Lancashire a man whose wife died appeared to him at night when he was returning from a trip. She had asked him to celebrate masses for her as she lived a sinful life. The number of masses her husband has to prepare were equal to the bunch of black hair she had given to him. When she was alive, her hair was blonde but it turned into black as a symbol of her punishment. As the masses were celebrated for her, the hair turned blonde and, with the last one, she appeared again thanking him and saying: ‘may you be blessed amongst all men for liberating me from the most dreadful punishment and now I am going happily’.[6]

Due to its unnatural aspect, it was hard to create a standing case for a lost soul that begs for salvation on the living relatives. Also, it would be difficult to believe that this is God’s work either. The case of a spirit in the town of Dole, 1628, is a very detailed investigation on the authenticity of the spirit’s good intentions. As she was seen only by an ill woman whom she took care of, the other people around were sceptical about this apparition. The spirit revealed its intentions gradually and proved herself worthy of trust, at least to some, when she drew the sign of cross using white chalk. The uniqueness of this drawing gave her credibility. And so she explained her purpose and required some pilgrimages on her behalf as a way of repaying the debt. When the woman recovered she took those pilgrimages for the soul who revealed herself as her aunt who died 17 years ago.[7]

These cases could be regarded as a mixture of fear and superstition with very religious grounds, given the amount of details and the intricate way of testing the dead’s tormented soul and the active participation of the Church. The possibility to see the loved one even when we lost the hope of meeting them again is comforting and meaningful. The lives of the people who encountered the Supernatural – Evil or Divine – became purposeful when entrusted with such a great mission.

[1] Jane P. Davidson, Early Modern Supernatural, The Dark Side of European Culture, 1400-1700 (Praeger, Oxford 2012), p. 142

[2] Ibid. p. 143

[3] David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death (Oxford University Press,1997) p. 388

[4] Darren Oldrige, Strange Histories (Routledge, London 2005)

[5] Henry More, An Antidote to Atheism (2nd edition, London 1655)

[6] English Historical Review, 38 (1923), 85-6 from David Englander, Diana Norman, An Anthology of Sources -Culture and Belief in Europe 1400-1600 p.16

[7] Kathryn A. Edwards and Susie Speakman Sutch, The History of the Apparition of a Spirit: Dole, 1628


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