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.