Different Christian traditions point to two places where Mary may have died and was buried– Jerusalem or Ephesus. I lean towards Jerusalem since Mary was part of that church from its beginning. We don’t know how long she lived or other details of her life, but her role as mother of Jesus and her memories of him assured her of an influential place in the Jerusalem church. She had an important role in its development.
Today two shrines in Jerusalem recall her passing. The Church of the Dormition on Mount Sion, where the first Christian community met, recalls Mary’s death, her “falling asleep.” The Tomb of the Virgin at the base of the Mount of Olives next to the Garden of Gethsemane contains her empty tomb.
(cf. Jerome Murphy O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide)
Her tomb is empty, as visitors can see who go down into the dark church near Gethsemane. Like the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it contains no bodily remains. God has taken her body and soul into heaven.
“We believe in the resurrection of the body,” our creed says. The Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives have been vast burial grounds over the centuries. This was where the Messiah would come to raise up the dead, Jews believed, (Zechariah 14,4) and so Mary’s burial there places her among those who hope for resurrection. Here Mary in her Assumption becomes a sign that Jesus , the Messiah, the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” is calling all humanity to share in his resurrection.
Significantly, Mary is buried close to Gethsemane where her Son entered into the mystery of his passion and death. She follows him into this mystery, as she does through all the mysteries of his life.
The eastern church beautifully expresses this belief in its icons and its liturgy for the Dormition of Mary on August 15. The apostles gather from all parts of the world to bury Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He himself stands at her deathbed as the angels look on and holds her soul in his hands to take her to heaven. The apostles then bury her body in a tomb.
Thomas the apostle, a late comer for her funeral, goes to Mary’s tomb three days after her burial and finds it empty. Her body has been taken up to heaven to share in the resurrection of her Son.
The bodily assumption of Mary not only speaks about the future resurrection of the dead, it also calls us now to respect the creation destined to share in the resurrection of Jesus. Our bodies as well as the world they are taken from have a destiny beyond this time and place. We must honor and care for them.