According to some traditions dating back to the 4th Century, the tomb of the Virgin Mary sits in the valley of the Cedron, near Jerusalem. In the past few centuries however there have been some scholars that insist that her tomb is actually in Ephesus. For any other person the controversy might be relatively easy to solve, but because she was assumed body and soul into heaven, her tomb would necessarily be empty at this point. In fact there are many who believe that she did not actually die. When Pope Pius XII formally declared the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950, he left the question as to whether she died or not still open, referring to her moment of passing as a dormition. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, while referring to the Assumption as well, did not address the question either (Lumen Gentium, 59). Although this question still remains open, it is helpful for us to look at the reasons why it is likely that she did die before being assumed into heaven.
A fair question to ask at the outset is why we should even care about what only may amount to theological speculation. If her body is not in either tomb, then why venerate those locations? For that matter, why does the Assumption matter? I would answer by responding as Fr. John Saward says about all Marian doctrines—Mary keeps the truths of the faith from becoming entirely abstract. She is the first sharer in everything that Christ won for us and therefore the Assumption sprinkles seeds on our own hope for Heaven.
Mary’s Assumption helps us to escape the body/soul dualism in which many Christians are trapped. Heaven is meant to be a bodily experience and we know this to be true because at least one human person is experiencing it now. We can say that souls go to heaven, but could we actually prove it? Her Assumption gives us proof not only that souls go to heaven but that bodies do too. In other words, the privilege of the Assumption makes the promise of heaven palpable for all of us. This is why we call Our Lady “Our Hope.”
To see why it matters whether she actually died or not, we must first examine why it is probable that she did. St. John Paul II took up this question in a Wednesday Audience on July 2, 1997. To understand his argument, it is first necessary to look at death itself. By returning to “the beginning” in the Book of Genesis, we can learn a number of things. First, in his natural state man is capable of death (i.e. separation of the body and soul). God warns Adam when He enters into covenant with him that he will die if he eats from the Tree of Good and Evil (Gn 2:17). This is not to be interpreted as a threat so much as it is one of the terms of the Covenant that God is making with Adam that God will preserve him from death. This of course means that Adam without this preternatural gift would have died naturally.
The other important point to take into account is the specific covenantal curses that are invoked. When God tells Adam that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19), He is not only telling Adam that he will die, but also that his body will suffer corruption. One can infer then that one of the punishments for sin is bodily corruption.
Returning now to the Holy Father’s 1997 Audience, we can understand why he says Mary suffered death. By the “singular privilege” of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady was preserved from the stain of Original Sin. This however does not “lead to the conclusion that she also received physical immortality.” She suffered death as a result of having a human nature and not as a punishment for sin. Being exempt from all sin, her body would not have seen corruption.
Could she not have remained in the grave, incorrupt? Certainly this could have been a possibility, but there are other saints who have done so. If she really is “full of grace” then her privileges as the Mother of God would have to be completely unique. Add to this a recent finding of science that shows how a child’s DNA remains within the mother’s body for many decades after its birth and it is only fitting that the body that not only carried Christ for 9 months, but continued to carry parts of Him in her body, should be reunited to Him in heaven. It is almost as if His own Ascension was not complete until all the parts of His body inside her returned to Heaven as well.
So far, it has been shown that she was capable of death, but why was her death probable? Obviously, only someone who has died can share in Christ’s Resurrection. Of all Christians, Mary most closely made Christ’s life her own. It is only fitting then that she share in His physical death too, especially since Christ underwent death to give it a “new meaning and changing it into a means of salvation.”
While we do not know the biological cause of her death, we can say that her death was unlike any other in its sweetness. The peaceful manner in which she passed has earned a special term—the Dormition (or falling asleep). St. John of the Cross says that once one has achieved the highest level of prayer (spiritual marriage) death comes about through an act of love so full that it stops the lover’s heart. This is why St. Francis de Sales says her death was a “transport of love” (Treatise on the Love of God, bk. 7, ch. 13-14). In short, she died of love.
To answer why her death matters to us, we turn one last time to the Marian Pope—“The experience of death personally enriched the Blessed Virgin: by undergoing mankind’s common destiny, she can more effectively exercise her spiritual motherhood towards those approaching the last moment of their life.”
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. O Refuge of sinners, Mother of the dying, do not forsake us at the hour of our death.