The People vs. Death

2 Jun

The People vs. Death

A Legal Drama Based on Chapter 14 of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s

Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, “Death, Life, and Discipline.”

 Complete overkill. One chunk of brimstone out of five!

– The Hades Town Crier


 Originally submitted for History of Christianity II, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON, Canada, MDiv Year I, Semester 2, 12 April, 2010.

For this course, students were given the option of writing a traditional reflection paper or a creative composition, such as a one-act play, that illustrated an understanding of the history of Christianity of the Reformation. The paper was to be based on one of the final five chapters of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book- a textbook for the course- Reformation: Europe’s House Divided.

In the chapter entitled “Death, Life, and Discipline” on which I wrote, MacCulloch describes the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed responses to death and dying. Reformation-era Reformed Christians tended to be more austere in their approach to death than followers of Luther. However, both groups developed ceremonies where death was mocked in an effort to assuage fears of death in a violent and disease-ridden time. The following drama, set in a contemporary courtroom, is loosely and anachronistically based on that reality, of which MacCulloch writes:

The dismissal of superstitious ceremony around death [by Reformed Christians] was fine in theory, but cross-currents both from above and below opposed these minimal rites of passage. Luther himself… decided when drawing up the instructions for the 1528 Saxon visitation that the Church ought to help people mock their fears of death through a satisfying liturgical drama… Equally, in the Reformed world, many both lay and clerical felt a desperate wish for suitable remembrance of the dead in this world even if nothing could be done for them in the next. 

– Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 (London/New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 577.


[Death is on trial in a future law court for corruption of humanity. The courtroom is noted for its austere decor, with no artwork on the walls. Its windows are so soiled that little sunlight passes through them. Closing arguments of the prosecution and then of the defence are to be heard, followed by the reading of the verdict. As the scene opens, the Marshall calls the court to attention with three strikes of the gavel.]

 Marshall: All rise!

 [The judge, Hector Faust,[1] enters, walks to the judge’s bench, and is seated. Death, the defendant, shackled and in an orange jumpsuit, is seated in the prisoner’s box. All in the courtroom then also sit.]

 Marshall: This court is now in session.

 Justice Faust: This court calls upon the prosecution to make its closing arguments.

 [The lead prosecutor, Martina Philippa Melanchthon-Bucer, a Lutheran, walks confidently toward the jurors.]

 Melanchthon-Bucer [begins her closing arguments]: Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ…[2]

 Yorick and Horatio,[3] Death’s defence lawyers and devout disciples of John Calvin [loudly and simultaneously]: Objection, your honour! The defendant is being mocked.

 Faust: Objection sustained! Death is not to be mocked. Alas, for I was once a lonely and morose philosopher. I fell in love with dear Marguerite, “an angel in human form.”[4] So drawn was I to her that I related my dreamy vision of Marguerite’s beauty to Mephistopheles. I didn’t know I was speaking with the devil himself. He tricked me, that hellion! At death I was separated from my true love; Marguerite went to the splendour of heaven, and I went to the fires of hell.[5]

 [Faust drops his head into his hands and begins to sob. The spectators wonder aloud whether the judge will be able to continue to adjudicate the trial. Faust, known for many previous such breakdowns on the bench, has always kept a vial of poison with him but has not yet attempted to drink from it. After several minutes, church bells peal in Easter celebration across the street from the courtroom.[6] Faust composes himself and the trial continues.]

 Faust [still sniffling back tears but his voice gaining strength]: But I escaped the grasp of the prince of darkness, came back to earth, studied criminal law, and became a judge. Ha ha ha ha!

 [In the midst of his wicked laugh, Faust coughs up a chunk of brimstone. The stenographer faints when struck by the brimstone and is carried out of the room by bailiffs.]

 Melanchthon-Bucer: May we proceed with the trial, your honour? Your deadly accuracy with regurgitated brimstone is commendable, but, with or without a stenographer, the rest of us have a burning desire to bring this case to a conclusion.

 Faust: Proceed, madam prosecutor.

 Melanchthon-Bucer [visibly angry, addresses the jury]: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the macabre defendant, Death, is on trial before you for the corruption of humanity. I beg you, for the good of the living and the dead, to find Death guilty of that charge. In death, there is no joy, no song, and no pleasure. When one dies, according to our defendant and to the defence, if that person is not one of God’s elect, he or she is destined for the everlasting furnace.[7]

 [A spectator, Daniel, begins to shout from the gallery upon Melanchthon-Bucer’s mention of a furnace.[8]]

 Daniel: Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers, praiseworthy and exalted above all forever; And blessed is your holy and glorious name, praiseworthy and glorious above all for all ages…[9]

 [Daniel collapses and dies before he finishes the Old Testament hymn. A minister, Samuel Luthor,[10] an earlier witness in Death’s trial whose brother is a covert career criminal, stands in the hushed courtroom and begins to lead a long sermon in celebration of Daniel’s life.[11]]

 Faust: Order in the court!

 Samuel: Our beloved brother Daniel has died with Scripture alone[12] in his mind and on his tongue. For that, God will surely receive him into heaven.

 [The sermon continues until everyone in the courtroom falls asleep but Samuel. A spectator from Greece named Eutychus, is sitting too near a window. Eutychus falls out the window to his death, but a doctor descends to the sidewalk, revives Eutychus,[13] and both re-enter the courtroom within the next hour. Samuel Luthor’s sermon is just then ending.]

 Samuel: Let us finish with a good Reformation-era Lutheran hymn. [All, in varying degrees of wakefulness, begin to sing, except for Death, Yorick, and Horatio, who listen in horror]:

 A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing…

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.[14]

[The sky outside, meanwhile, has darkened. Lightning and thunder awaken the sleeping spectators. The courtroom fills with smoke and becomes hot. Satan exits his time machine, the MephistoMover 2050, after it lands in front of the stunned judge and jurors.]

Satan: I resent that hymn! I shall not be so easily felled!

[Satan, irate, has a fire-breathing tantrum that incinerates all twelve jurors and Yorick, Death’s defence lawyer. Faust, realizing that Satan is in his midst and that, without a jury, he will need to reach a verdict on his own, cowers behind the judge’s chair.]

Satan [looking at Yorick, feigning remorse]: Sorry, that was an accident.

[With glee, but pretending to be mortified at Yorick’s death, Death runs to his defence team. He is able to catch Yorick’s charred skull in mid-air.]

Death [looking at Horatio and then at the skull in his hand]: Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.[15]

Melanchthon-Bucer: Aha! Death has quite a self-deprecating sense of humour; he even quotes Shakespeare, a product of the Reformation, to mock himself, much to my delight.

Horatio [addresses Samuel Luthor]: See to it that good Yorick is buried in an unmarked grave outside the city, as he has willed.[16]

Faust [while staggering to his chair]: We have a trial to complete, so let’s allow the defence to present its closing arguments.

Horatio [frustrated]: At last! Your honour, in defence of my client I have reason to doubt the veracity of one prior prosecution witness, Mr. Samuel Luthor. He argued that Death has indeed corrupted humanity, but Mr. Luthor has already disrupted this trial with a long-winded sermon. He also stands accused of aiding and abetting his brother in the smuggling of a controlled substance, Kryptonite, into this courthouse, not five minutes ago. You must find the defendant not guilty.

[A scream is heard as Samuel Luthor’s brother is arrested by courthouse security]: Samuel! Samuel!

Samuel [running out of the courtroom]: Here I am,[17] Lex!

[Suddenly a flash of light brings the trial to a halt again. Jesus appears in the courtroom.]

Satan [derisively]: Oh, this is familiar. “Just then the Lord himself appeared in a blinding flash of light, and shouted at the devil…”

Jesus: “Get thee hence to endless night!”[18]

Skeleton of a Catholic bishop from the Council of Trent [from a back corner of the courtroom with an index finger pointed at Satan, and in a raspy voice]: Anathema sit![19]

Satan: If only getting rid of me were that easy. Jesus, how about a poker or chess match to decide this? Of course, I’ll win as I did on that Spanish Train from Guadalquivir to Old Seville.[20]

Jesus: Never again will I play poker or chess with you! You cheated on the train and won one hundred five thousand souls.[21] I’ll avenge that loss; you just wait.

Satan: That was back in 1975. Get over it!

Jesus: And what’s with that time machine? It’s ridiculous!

Satan: Any good anachronist needs a time machine. The MephistoMover 2050 is the latest model.

Jesus [having moved to the judge’s chair]: I hold you in contempt of historical order and of this court, Satan. You are hereby banished to hell for eternity.

Satan: Home sweet home. I’m taking Faust and Death with me! [Starts singing] “Be-el-ze-bub has a devil put aside for me… for me… for meeee!”[22]

[Satan shrieks on the highest note of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Jesus is now even more livid than before.]

 Jesus: Lucifer, you’re not a very bright angel, nor are you a good singer.

Satan: Forgive me, since there’s no singing in hell. My voice wasn’t warmed up, and Freddie Mercury is in purgatory, so I can’t receive operatic rock lessons.

Jesus: Very well. Faust, you go back to hell with Satan. As for you, Death, I find you guilty on the charge of corruption of humanity and sentence you to life.

Death [confused]: Life? In prison? On the top level of a Stool of Repentance?[23]

Jesus: No, just life. A historical change isn’t appropriate here. As God, I transcend history, after all. Your sentence is thus an ontological change from death to life.

[The spectators begin to sing the Easter hymn, “The Strife is O’er”]

Jesus [thinking]: That tune is from the Reformation, but the lyrics aren’t.[24] I am both divine and human, both within time and beyond it. A half-anachronism never hurt anyone. Let’s sing it anyway.

[Jesus begins to conduct the jubilantly singing spectators.]

The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun;

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia![25]



List of Characters

Daniel…………………………………………. A deranged spectator in the courtroom gallery.

Death………………………………………….. The defendant. 

Eutychus……………………………………… A Greek spectator who needs to avoid sitting near windows. 

Horatio……………………………………….. A defence lawyer and Reformed Christian.

Jesus……………………………………………. The timeless Son of God, as himself.

Jurors…………………………………………. Twelve people with particularly ashen complexions.

Justice Hector Faust…………………… Went to hell as a philosopher and returned to earth as a judge.

Lex Luthor………………………………….. Samuel’s Kryptonite-toting brother of comic book fame.

Marshall of the courtroom

Martina Philippa Melanchthon-Bucer… The lead prosecutor; a Lutheran.

Samuel Luthor…………………………….. A Lutheran minister.

Satan…………………………………………… The anachronistic hellion, as himself at anytime but during the Reformation.

Skeleton of a Catholic Bishop from the Council of Trent.

Stenographer……………………………….. Ought to beware of flying brimstone.

Yorick………………………………………….. A defence lawyer who has been burned- in legal arguments- one too many times; a Reformed Christian.


[1] Music with Ease, “La Damnation de Faust, Hector Berlioz (1803-69).” berlioz-damnation-faust.html. Accessed 9 April, 2010. The name of the judge, Hector Faust, is a combination of the names of the lead character and composer of “La Damnation de Faust.”

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:55-56, New American Bible.

[3] William Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” /full.html. Accessed 11 April, 2010. The names of the defence lawyers are drawn from Act V, Scene I of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

[4] Music with Ease, “La Damnation de Faust,” accessed 9 April, 2010.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 (London/New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 243-244.

[8] Daniel 3:19-51, NAB.

[9] Daniel 3:52, NAB.

[10] Warner Brothers, “Lex Luthor,” Accessed 10 April, 2010.

[11] MacCulloch, Reformation, 578.

[12] Wilhelm Joseph, “Protestantism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. cathen/12495a.htm. Accessed 10 April, 2010.

[13] Acts 20:7-12, NAB.

[14] Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, music by Martin Luther, translated by Frederick H. Hedge, in Christian Prayer (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1976), 1692.

[15] Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” accessed 11 April, 2010.

[16] MacCulloch, Reformation, 577. Yorick is meant in this play to be a caricature of John Calvin.

[17] 1 Samuel 3:1-8, 10, NAB.

[18] Chris de Burgh, “Spanish Train,” Spanish Train and Other Stories, A & M 393143-2 (CD), 1975.

[19] “Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: The Fourth Session, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures.” Accessed 11 April, 2010.

[20] Chris de Burgh, “Spanish Train,” Spanish Train and Other Stories, A & M 393143-2 (CD), 1975.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” performed by Queen in A Night at the Opera, Hollywood Records B000000OAN (CD), 1991.

[23] MacCulloch, Reformation, 598-599. According to MacCulloch, the top level of the Stool of Repentance was reserved for those who had committed the most serious sins.

[24] Symphonia Sirenum Selectarum, Alleluia! The Strife is O’er, music by G.P. da Palestrina, translated by Francis Pott, in Christian Prayer (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1976), 1627. The music of this hymn was composed by da Palestrina in 1588; the lyrics quoted in this play were added in 1695.

[25] Ibid.


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