The assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her earthly life is not a complicated doctrine, but one question is a frequent source of debate: Did Mary die before she was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven?
The Traditional Answer
From the earliest Christian traditions surrounding the Assumption, the answer to the question of whether the Blessed Virgin died as all men do has been “yes.” The Feast of the Assumption was first celebrated in the sixth century in the Christian East, where it was known as the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos (the Mother of God). To this day, among Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, the traditions surrounding the Dormition are based on a fourth-century document called “The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God.” (Dormition means “the falling asleep.”)
The “Falling Asleep” of the Holy Mother of God
That document, written in the voice of Saint John the Evangelist (to whom Christ, on the Cross, had entrusted the care of His mother), recounts how the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she prayed at the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb in which Christ had been laid on Good Friday, and from which He rose on Easter Sunday). Gabriel told the Blessed Virgin that her earthly life had reached its end, and she decided to return to Bethlehem to meet her death.
All of the apostles, having been caught up in clouds by the Holy Spirit, were transported to Bethlehem to be with Mary in her final days. Together, they carried her bed (again, with the aid of the Holy Spirit) to her home in Jerusalem, where, on the following Sunday, Christ appeared to her and told her not to fear. While Peter sang a hymn,
The face of the mother of the Lord shone brighter than the light, and she rose up and blessed each of the apostles with her own hand, and all gave glory to God; and the Lord stretched forth His undefiled hands, and received her holy and blameless soul. And Peter, and I John, and Paul, and Thomas, ran and wrapped up her precious feet for the consecration; and the twelve apostles put her precious and holy body upon a couch, and carried it.
The apostles took the couch bearing Mary’s body to the Garden of Gethsemane, where they placed her body in a new tomb:
And, behold, a perfume of sweet savour came forth out of the holy sepulchre of our Lady the mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise.
“The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God” is the earliest extant written document describing the end of Mary’s life, and as we can see, it indicates that Mary died before her body was assumed into Heaven.
The Same Tradition, East and West
The earliest Latin versions of the story of the Assumption, written a couple of centuries later, differ in certain details but agree that Mary died, and Christ received her soul; that the apostles entombed her body; and that Mary’s body was taken up into Heaven from the tomb.
That none of these documents bear the weight of Scripture does not matter; what matters is that they tell us what Christians, in both the East and the West, believed had happened to Mary at the end of her life. Unlike the Prophet Elijah, who was caught up by a fiery chariot and taken up into Heaven while still alive, the Virgin Mary (according to these traditions) died naturally, and then her soul was reunited with her body at the Assumption. (Her body, all of the documents agree, remained incorrupt between her death and her Assumption.)
Pius XII on the Death and Assumption of Mary
While Eastern Christians have kept these early tradition surrounding the Assumption alive, Western Christians have largely lost touch with them. Some, hearing the Assumption described by the Eastern term dormition, incorrectly assume that the “falling asleep” means that Mary was assumed into Heaven before she could die. But Pope Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus, his November 1, 1950, declaration of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, cites ancient liturgical texts from both East and West, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers, all indicating that the Blessed Virgin had died before her body was assumed into Heaven. Pius echoes this tradition in his own words:
this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son, Jesus Christ . . .
Mary’s Death Is Not a Matter of Faith
Still, the dogma, as Pius XII defined it, leaves the question of whether the Virgin Mary died open. What Catholics must believe is
that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
“[H]aving completed the course of her earthly life” is ambiguous; it allows for the possibility that Mary may not have died before her Assumption. In other words, while tradition has always indicated that Mary did die, Catholics are not bound, at least by the definition of the dogma, to believe it.