The Reformation and Danish Society: Life and Death

Both before and after the Reformation people lived with the consciousness that they would die. They thought differently about death than we do today. Death did not mark the definitive end of life, and therefore the point was not to ‘live in the here and now’ as many people say today. Life continued after death, and on the Day of Judgement people would be called to account for their life before death. Memento mori – objects kept as a reminder of the inevitability of death, like bones and hourglasses - were common in churches and elsewhere.

Since death at an early age was common and infant mortality high, many people had close experience of death. In church, death was also present in the gravestones and epitaphs for dead members of the congregation. In Catholicism, Purgatory had existed as a purifying fire that expiated sin, and the descendants of the dead could participate in requiem masses to shorten the deceased’s time in Purgatory. For Lutherans the focus was on keeping the faith and praying to God. But the belief that God could not only punish in this life but also address sinful deeds on the Day of Judgement was still widely held. There was therefore a lot of fear of death and the Day of Judgement. Before dying, people could call on a pastor to repent their sins and pray for absolution, but after that they had to put their faith in God and his forgiveness.

It was important to have an army chaplain when at war. He could forgive the sins of dying soldiers as they lay injured on the battlefield. Suicide was an unpardonable sin. There are therefore examples of people committing serious crimes like infanticide being sentenced to death and having their sins forgiven prior to execution.

Life on earth started at birth, and in the Lutheran universe it was crucial that the newly born child entered the church community as soon as possible by being christened. During the christening ceremony, the Devil was renounced and the child entrusted to God. People believed that the unbaptized child belonged to the Devil. If there was a risk that the baby would die before being christened, someone other than the pastor had to perform the christening.

During the 1900s, fear of the Devil and the Day of Judgement virtually disappeared. A much more scientific approach to the beginning and end of life also emerged. This has created new possibilities of human intervention, from an increasing number of methods to prevent conception, to life-extending treatments and euthanasia. Yet many people still start their lives with a christening and end it with a church funeral, even if they have not been active in the church. Debates in recent years about when life begins have also made pastors consider funerals for stillborn babies.