Protestantism is the collective term applied to Christian denominations originating in groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church in Europe's sixteenth-century Reformation. Reformers challenged the Church's manipulation of concerns about death and destiny to achieve temporal power and raise revenue. Church responses to the reformers' challenge, and the social and political alliances shaped by the debate, led to the major reform movements becoming churches independent of Rome.
At this time society was preoccupied with death. The Roman Catholic Church occupied a central role mediating between the living and the dead, who were in purgatory—a place of purification for souls readying themselves to enter heaven. The period of suffering in purgatory could be reduced by masses and prayers endowed by family and friends. It was also possible to obtain a special gift of pardon, or indulgence, and by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become commodities sold by the Church.
The reformers asserted that God saved souls by a free, unmerited gift of grace, not through church practices or decrees. They rejected purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the invocation of the saints, adopting an agnostic stance concerning such matters that were not directly attested to by Scripture. Their insistence that the living could no longer work on behalf of the dead brought significant changes to beliefs and practices concerning death, dying, and disposal.
On their death beds Protestants no longer made provision for the repose of their souls through endowing masses, purchasing indulgences, or providing alms for the poor so as to be remembered by them in their prayers. Rather, they sought to testify to the faith they held and in which they now died. A good death was calm, peaceful, and assured; although later in Puritan New England, especially belief in predestination required necessary doubt of salvation, assurance being replaced by anxious repentance.
While Catholic funerals eulogized the deceased and interceded for them in their entry into eternal life, Protestants preached to the living, avoiding any suggestion of intercessions on behalf of the dead. The performative ritual of Catholicism was abandoned: Protestants simply remembered the deceased and sought to learn from their example. Both Catholicism and Protestantism continued to evangelize by heightening the fear of death, fostering contempt for the world and emphasizing suffering as a route to salvation.
The social reorganization that accompanied industrialization changed European burial practices. Garden cemeteries replaced churchyards, separating places of worship from the place of burial. Undertakers appeared to prepare and transfer bodies and, in due course, to coordinate the religious services involved. Further, as medicine became dominant later in the nineteenth century, death was regarded increasingly as a medical challenge, not a spiritual transition. This secularization of dying and disposal initially affected Protestants more than Catholics, as the latter retained their ritual requirements.
The first half of the twentieth century saw the end of any distinctive idea of a Protestant death, and an increasing silence (except in some fundamentalist circles) about the afterlife issues that had dominated earlier religious discourse. By the 1970s these remaining distinctions eroded. Purgatory effectively disappeared from Catholic discourse. Cremation, since World War II a more usual mode of disposal among Protestants, became common among Catholics as well. In the twenty-first century both Catholicism and Protestantism focus upon the living rather than the dead, and both struggle to address the renewed interest in connection with the dead which is emerging in Western societies.
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