From Dr. Volkmar Joestel, Lutherhalle Wittenberg
His Last Days
Already the end of 1545 Luther had lingered in his birth town of Eisleben although he was 'old and weak', to help solve an inheritance dispute and lawsuit between the Mansfeld Count family. Further negotiations were set to begin on January 25, 1546. Luther, acompanied by his three sons, left for Eisleben after giving his last sermon in the City Church in Wittenberg on January 17, 1546. They arrived in Eisleben on January 28. Luther passed out because of the combination of cold weather and strain of crossing the Saale river. He gave four more sermons; he often mentioned his imminent (emminent?) death. Two days prior to his death he remarked: "If I make it home to Wittenberg, I will lay myself in my coffin to let maggots feast on the stout Doctor" (Wenn ich wieder heim gen Wittenberg komme, so will ich mich alsdann in Sarg legen und den Maden einen feisten Doktor zu essen geben).
The most important reports about Luther's death were recorded by the eye-witnesses Justus Jonas and Michael Coelius, the court preacher in Mansfeld.
Luther did not take part in the final negotiations on February 17 because he was not feeling well. From his chambers one could hear prayers and also the shout: "Doctor Jonas and Herr Michael (Coelius), I was born and baptised here in Eisleben, what if I should stay here"(Doktor Jonas und Herr Michael (Coelius), ich bin hier zu Eisleben geboren und getauft, wie wenn ich hierbleiben sollte)? Luther ate dinner with his companions at 8 pm as usual; during dinner he suffered an attack of angina pectoris. Despite his ailments, he ate well and was in good spirits. After dinner he went to his room to pray at the window, which was part of his normal routine; afterwards he slept for about an hour on the sofa. Around 10:30 pm he got up and went to the bedroom and slept in his bed whereby he offered his soul to God with the commonly used words from Ps. 31:6 ( ). He fell asleep around 11pm. At 1 am on February 18, Luther awoke again from pain at which point he soberly awaited his death. He moved to the daybed in his sitting room where warm towels were used to help alliviate his pain. The landlord, city scribe Johann Albrecht and wife, both city doctors as well as Count Albrecht and his wife Anne who was trained in pharmaceutics were all brought to Luther. He experienced the 'heralds of death', strong pain, fear and breaking out in a sweat. After thanking God once again for the Revelations of Christ and asking God to take his soul, Luther repeated Psalm 31:6 three more times and then was silent. He collapsed as if he wanted to die and did not answer when asked a question. When countess Anna rubbed him with attar of roses and aquavit life came back to him. Jonas and Coelius once again asked him if he was dying in the name of Christ and accepted all of Christs teachings. Luther answered with an unpretentious "yes" (Ja) and fell back asleep. His face went pale and his feet and nose got cold. Luther's last breath was taken at 2:45 am; he died in peace.
Luther's last words written on a piece of paper are from February 16 and were: "Virgil's shepherd poems cannot be understood, except by one who has been a shepherd for five years. Virgil's poetry about agriculture cannot be understood, except by one who has been a farmhand for five years. Cicero's letters cannot be understood, except by one who has participated and lived within a large community for 25 years. The Holy Scriptures do not have a satisfactory taste for me or anyone else, unless he has spent 100 years ruling a community as the prophets Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the Apostles. (Die Hirtengedichte Vergils kann niemand verstehen, er sei denn fünf Jahre Hirte gewesen. Die Vergilschen Dichtungen über die Landwirtschaft kann niemand verstehen, er sei denn fünf Jahre Ackermann gewesen. Die Briefe Ciceros kann niemand verstehen, er habe denn 25 Jahre in einem großen Gemeinwesen sich bewegt. Die Heilige Schrift meine niemand genügsam geschmeckt zu haben, er habe denn hundert Jahre lang mit Propheten wie Elias und Elisa, Johannes dem Täufer, Christus und den Aposteln die Gemeinden regiert. Versuche nicht diese göttliche Aeneis, sondern neige dich tief anbetend vor ihren Spuren! Wir sind Bettler, das ist wahr; WA 48, S. 421)
Transportation to Wittenberg and Burial
Early morning on February 18, Jonas informed Elector Johann Friedrich and the Universtiy of Luther's death. The elector wrote to the Counts of Mansfeld telling them that Luther would be laid to rest in the Castle Chruch of Wittenberg and not in Eisleben. The university wanted him buried in the City Chruch, but agreed to the will of the Elector. On February 19 Melanchthon lamented the death of Luther during his lecture. Luther's wife, Katharina, expressed her pain over Luther's death to her sister-in-law, Christina von Bora.
Luther's corpse was laid out in a white smock on his bed in Eisleben until a pewter coffin could be cast. Furtenagel, an artist from Halle, was assigned to finish a death mask. On February 19 at 2 pm his corpse was taken to St. Andrews Church (St Andreaskirche) where Jonas gave a funeral oration and on February 20 Coelius have a second funeral oration. Afterwards, around noon, the funeral procession left town. In most villages the procession went through, the church bells were ringing. At 5 pm they reached Halle and the corpse was laid out in the Sacristy of St. Mary's Church (Marienkirche). At noon on February 21 they reached the electorate of Saxony and the town of Bitterfeld. February 22 in the morning they arrived at the western Elster gate of Wittenberg. In the front were students and intellectuals, then the representatives of the Elector and the Counts Hans and Hoyer of Mansfeld with approximately 65 mounted horsemen. Next came a wagon pulled by four horses carrying Luther's casket covered with a black cloth which had a white cross stitched onto it. Behind the corpse, Katharina, Margarete and some other women rode in a smaller wagon. Other relatives were on foot, incuding his three sons, brother Jacob and his sister's children. Then came the university director with the aristocratic students, followed by chancellor Brück and the most distinguished professors (Melanchthon, Jonas, Bugenhagen, Cruciger, Hieronymus Schurff), the left over Doctors and Masters. Then came the council, students and residents; lastly the women and children. The grave in the Castle Church under the Chancel had already been dug out. The funeral oration, held by Bugenhagen, covered the usual Biblical text 1 Thessalonians 4:13. Bugenhagen described Luther as an Angel of Revelation; a comparison which Michael Stiefel had made in 1522. The following commemorative address was held by Melanchthon who did not make a secret of the fact that Luther was not a "saint", but a normal person who also had rough edges.
Copyright(c) Dr. Volmar Joestel, Lutherhalle Wittenberg 1996
and KDG Wittenberg 1997