Another Side of Suicide: The Strange History of Punishing the Deceased

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Would you talk to a casual acquaintance about suicide? Probably not. Such weighty conversations most often occur with someone intimate  — a therapist or close friend. Without such discussion, full knowledge of suicide becomes difficult. Moreover, even those who understand the psychology of suicide are unlikely to know its history. They are unaware, for example, that suicide victims in Europe during the Middle Ages were often punished for the act of self murder.

I imagine you are asking, how can a person who is already dead be punished? Leaving a body unburied was one way. An ancient example is found in the Sophocles play Antigone, where Polynices is prohibited from burial because he participated in a failed revolt against Thebes. The rationale for this disrespect went beyond the expectation of a corpse ravaged by animals: the absence of proper burial would prevent him from going to the Underworld, the Greek’s version of the afterlife.

Of course, Polynices didn’t kill himself. By the Middle Ages, however, Christian clerics ranked suicide as worse than murder. In their opinion, taking the life of another did not rob the victim of his soul. The soul of the deceased was expected to find no difficulty in making his way to heaven. A suicide, on the other hand, killed both body and soul; in effect, a double murder. No room for repentance existed. Suicide was a crime against God.

Local authorities went to astonishing lengths to exact retribution from one who had killed himself. The body was sometimes preserved via embalming and salt to put the deceased’s remains on trial. The corpse might be hanged head down, strangled, whipped, or thrown from his window or roof. Such public displays were intended to discourage others from attempting similar self harm.

Other punishments included dragging the body by a horse through the street; being pulled apart, burned, decapitated, and quartered; or put into a barrel and thrown into a nearby river, thereby ensuring the remains would be the problem of a downstream community. It was also common for the victim’s property to be destroyed until authorities realized this cruelty harmed the person’s spouse and children. Thereafter, the family received some consideration. Nonetheless, a Christian burial was out of the question.

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Exceptions to the negative judgement of suicide were rare. The church, however, did let the famous strongman of the Israelites off the hook retroactively. Samson’s strength depended on his full and lengthy head of hair. Once the Philistines discovered this (thanks to Delilah), his locks were shorn. Samson was taken prisoner and blinded by his enemies. Some time later, the biblical hero was tied to the pillars supporting their temple and made a spectacle. Unbeknownst to his captors, however, his hair had grown back sufficiently to return his strength. In an act of revenge and suicide, Samson pulled down the structure’s supporting columns, causing the death of all, himself included. The church forgave the suicide by assigning responsibility for Samson’s self-destruction to a divine command.

The religious prohibition of suicide had unexpected and unfortunate consequences. A German jurist, Karl Ferdinand Hommel described one example in 1766. Hommel realized the Christian position on suicide unintentionally encouraged the murder of children, something he called “indirect suicide.”

According to the jurist, some of the faithful who wished to kill themselves hesitated because they would be damned to hell. More than a few, however, realized they could murder an innocent child and still have time to repent before the public execution they desired, thus achieving their own death without causing eternal damnation. The deceased youngster, they reasoned, would go directly to heaven.

Over time both the religious and the public view of suicide began to change. In some circles, life came to be seen as something belonging to oneself, not to the state or to God. Suicide was increasingly thought of as a mental disorder or a medical problem, not a moral failure, despite lingering negative judgment against it. Laws gradually changed and self murder became decriminalized. Although the practice of punishing the deceased ended in Europe long ago, not until 1983 did the Bishop of Paris state that self-destruction was no longer a sin, but rather a disgrace. He recommended mercy toward those who committed suicide.

Should you wish to know more about this interesting topic, you will find it in a fine book used as source material for this essay, Marzio Barbagli’s Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide. If nothing else, Barbagli’s volume reminds us that in a world where savagery still exists, we have nonetheless made great progress in the name of the living as well as the dead.

The cover of Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide is followed by Guercino’s 1654 painting Samson and Delilah.

23 thoughts on “Another Side of Suicide: The Strange History of Punishing the Deceased

  1. Suicide leaves a world of sadness behind. I have lost family members and best friends to suicide and watched the aftermath with profound feelings of helplessness. I do admire the young woman who went to Oregon to die rather than face the end of days with her disease. And, I’m glad she stopped at the Grand Canyon on the way. The Canyon is a good last vision for anyone.

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  2. On the other side of the coin are the suicide bombers whose religion actually encourages the act, rather than dole out punishment for it.

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    • No question. And, just to make it clear, this essay is not meant to encourage or advocate for suicide. Rather, however, to look at the history, cruelty, and absurdity of how the act has been treated. Thanks for your comment, Brewdun.

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  3. interesting and surprising history. I think we have gone in the opposite direction. Suicide still carries taboos but its often true that nobody really wants to talk much about the person or the event. The dead are left completely “alone” in various senses of the word. Emotions are strong, but these are emotions we are normally unfamiliar with until the event happens, and so we do not have any idea about how to deal with these emotions.

    I think in fact that some people go into such denial that where it is even possible, that families of the deceased never tell anyone what really happened. I remember a former roommate Cliff, who went to live with his aging mother in La Jolla at about age 50. He had been functional as a cook in Chicago much of his life, but could not form relationships and lived a solitary life. in California he never worked and apparently almost never left home. One day, my father, who had known Cliffs mother quite well, told me that Cliff had just suddenly died one day. Cliffs mother never said what was the cause of death and never referred again to the issue even though she and my father remained in touch for years. I kind of presume this was a suicide, as Cliff apparently had no medical issues.

    The silence that surrounded my own mothers suicide was deafening. I think that if it had been possible to have disguised the way she died, that the whole extended family would have complied. Sadly How she died also became inextricably linked with her life and her achievements, and so really as far as I can see, the positive aspects of her life, in fact all aspects of her life, became invisible, as if she had never existed.. My father and brother rarely spoke about her at all, even though we had all lived together for 17 years prior to the event.

    But punishment also continues as in the fascinating life story of Jack Kevorkian who practiced assisted suicide on over 150 people who were terminally ill and chose to die. But he was relentlessly persued by legal authorities in Michigan, although he was found innocent in his first three trials. (He did finally wind up being jailed for 10 years because he decided to publicize the cause by practicing euthanasia, which is different than assisted suicide, and he tried for 2nd degree murder and was found guilty.) In any case, thank goodness for assisted suicide laws in Oregon, Washington and perhaps a couple of other states, that allow terminally ill people to make their own decision about ending their life.

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    • “The silence that surrounded my own mother’s suicide was deafening. I think that if it had been possible to have disguised the way she died, that the whole extended family would have complied. ”
      ~ Richard, the central theme of my first yet-to-be-published novel, Under the Tamarind Tree, is the shame, guilt, and consequences of suicide in the lives of the main characters. Coincidentally, the first name of my protagonist is also Richard.

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  4. Thanks for your profound comment, Rick. Your personal experience makes this extraordinarily relevant. I also found this significant: “these are emotions we are normally unfamiliar with until the event happens, and so we do not have any idea about how to deal with these emotions.” The surprises of life, especially when they are as terrible as the one you describe, leave us unprepared. Moreover, they can cause us to redefine ourselves. If we act heroically or stoically, then perhaps we think better of ourselves. If, however, we struggle with the blows life delivers (as most of us do) our self image also becomes one of the casualties.

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  5. Dr. Stein, thanks for that interesting summary of the history of suicide. I found the following of special interest:

    “According to the jurist, some of the faithful who wished to kill themselves hesitated because they would be damned to hell. More than a few, however, realized they could murder an innocent child and still have time to repent before the public execution they desired, thus achieving their own death without causing eternal damnation. The deceased youngster, they reasoned, would go directly to heaven.”
    ~ It’s amazing how we are capable of finding a way – even by jeopardizing the life of another – to achieve our own goals.

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  6. Reblogged this on Three Worlds One Vision and commented:
    My blogger friend, Dr. Gerald Stein, has posted an interesting summary on the strange history of suicide. Despite religious and other prohibitions to what was once termed “self-murder”, those who sought to end their lives found a way.

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  7. This only applies to the Judeo-Christian religion and is cultural. In some cultures, suicide is an act of honor, such as hari-kari in Japan. Sacrificial victims among the Aztecs, who go willingly to their deaths, revered by all. Jesus, who could have saved himself (in worldly terms) but didn’t.

    The only reason for suffering is to learn how not to suffer. If you believe in the immortality of the soul, a suicide in one life teaches the reincarnated soul what not to do.

    For anyone contemplating suicide: “What if the other side is worse?” What happens if you botch the job?

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    • As I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, I was focusing primarily on Christianity’s view of suicide in the Middle Ages and some particularly unfortunate consequences. Barbagli’s book also looks at the history of suicide in the East. An example is “sati,” the Hindu ceremony of a widow immolating herself, whether out of her love for her deceased husband or the coercion of their community. As to the question of honor among those who kill themselves, especially when it is a part of the act of war, I think honor and shame vie with other motivations. I could go on. A very complex matter and, as some have already commented, one that produces profound and generations-long consequences. Thanks for your comment.

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  8. Growing up as a Catholic kid, I learned early on that suicide was a ticket to hell. It didn’t really make sense to me even as a child that a person who hurt themselves should go to hell. It was explained to me that the sin was in not trusting in God. Somehow that did not sit right with me. Maybe the person didn’t trust in God for a very good reason?
    Suicide is open wound in me right now as, last summer, a friend and coworker drove his car off an ocean cliff nearby. The entire community reeled from this tragedy. No one – NO ONE – saw it coming and, for me, that has been the saddest part. He was my friend and yet I had not a clue that he was that despairing. Because his widow has chosen not to talk about it publicly, people end up tiptoeing around it. I wish she would open the conversation so a spotlight could be shone and others could see some solutions to despair. Robin Williams was well known around here as he lived in our greater community. His suicide was devastating for lots of reasons but it get the community talking (for awhile anyway).
    This being a human being is hard work and we need each other. Suicide victims demonstrate that truth.

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    • Your example is a touching one, JT. I know you have referred to it before, so it clearly continues to reverberate. I hope that over time this becomes easier for you and all the others whose lives were given more meaning by the presence of your friend.

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  9. Dr. Harvey Friedson

    Thank you Gerald for an interesting, intriguing post. And thank you Richard Stern for the courage to write about your mother’s suicide. My grandfather, my father’s father, committed suicide when my father was 17, leaving behind a wife and four children. His suicide, though never mentioned by either my father or his siblings, was shared to me by my mother, in conspiratorial whispers. It was a “family secret” that everybody knew, but nobody acknowledged. Nevertheless its impact on my father was profound and, like a pebble thrown into a pond, it rippled across generations. When my father’s older brother was in a nursing home and over 90, I asked him about the death of his father. Still not able to talk about it, he broke down and cried like a baby.

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    • Thank you, Harvey, for enriching the conversation. As I know you know, many of our high school classmates felt the multigenerational impact of the Great Depression, WWII, and the Holocaust. I recall reading the first popular book on the latter topic, “Children of the Holocaust,” by Helen Epstein. As you suggested of the suicide in your family, the quiet disquiet that trails the event leaves one looking for words adequate to the pain. Perhaps it is simply that there are none.

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  10. […] Read more… 717 more words  – Reblogged from Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago: […]

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  11. Thanks for sharing provocative thoughts on the subject of ‘suicide’, R.B. Suicide is an uncanny phenomenon rich with historical overtures. It truly leaves the living with whispers that seep through the silence of night and day, beyond any spectrum collating an equation of why equal what or how. Suicide is inexplicable beyond any Grand Canyon in our lives. When I opened the door of our dreams, I saw her hanging from the ceiling with a note in her hand.
    ~ Leonard Dabydeen

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  12. Thanks for this interesting read.

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