The Tragedy of Suicide
The tragedy of suicide has received quite a bit of attention in recent weeks. Shocking public acts of suicide in Greece associated with the economic crisis of that country have made international headlines, noting that Greece once had the lowest suicide rates in Europe. Recent reports indicate that far more U.S. military personnel have taken their own lives in Afghanistan this year than have been killed in combat. Undoubtedly, the economic difficulties faced by many in our own nation have influenced such a tragic decision for many persons.
Suicide is perhaps the most challenging pastoral crisis any pastor can face. It not only involves the grief of survivors caused by any death of loved ones, but may lead to ongoing, debilitating effects on families, parishes and wider communities. The shepherds of the Holy Church must not only make manifest the intensely comforting love of our Heavenly Father, but they must also continue to teach the truth of the Gospel of salvation in the face of such devastating circumstances and remain steadfast in the affirmation of the sacredness and triumph of life over death, for “Christ is risen, trampling down death by death.”
Customarily, the Orthodox Church has been described (or accused) of not offering funerals or burials for persons who commit suicide. To some degree, this description is fair insofar as suicide is contrary to faith in God. However, in many ways the description—or accusation—is inaccurate.
Generally, the Church has always been conscious of the fact that in some instances suicide is a result of serious mental illness, and not properly “voluntary.” In such instances the Church recognizes the inability of a person to exercise self-control and may cause injury or death to him or herself. In such instances, when there is evidence that such mental illness was the cause of suicide, the funeral service is allowed to be sung in the church and burial with the customary prayers. The presumption is that if not mentally ill, the person would not have taken such action. Likewise, today we have become far more aware of mental illnesses and other causes of “involuntary” suicide, such as prescription medications that actually now list “suicidal ideation” (thoughts) as a potential side-effect. Indeed, most pastors will probably presume some level of mental illness in any case of suicide.
In our society, we are also aware that in the face of dire circumstances some people choose to no longer continue living, either due to despair, grief, fear of living with illness (as advocated by the infamous Dr. Jack Kervorkian), or even for political causes as we painfully observed on September 11, 2001. Yet as Christians, who affirm the victory of our Risen Lord over death, we cannot ever tolerate or excuse the taking of a life due to despair or fear. Such is an exhibition of faithlessness, a lack of trust in our loving God, even if for a brief time.
The Orthodox practices of funeral and burial presuppose responding to the repose of a person that has attempted to live life in accordance with the belief and principles of the Church. A “voluntary” suicide is always contrary to those principles. The content of the funeral service in such an instance would ring hollow and even hypocritical when offered for someone who did not even in principle seek to live according to the faith in Jesus Christ. Likewise, the practice of not offering the customary funeral prayers in such cases illustrates the degree to which the Church rejects such courses of action.
However, whatever the circumstances that may have led to suicide, we recognize the need to offer the utmost support to the grieving, and the most sensitive comfort we can provide in a time of loss and sadness. We are very aware of the need to exercise compassion, and the Holy Church allows, through the practice of oikonomia (economy, dispensation), the local hierarch to address each instance in the manner that should be of greatest benefit to the faithful without compromising the integrity of the Gospel and without setting precedent.
Furthermore, the Church never consigns anyone to eternal torment. The offering of a funeral at the repose of one of our members does not guarantee a “resurrection to life,” nor does the lack of a funeral determine a “resurrection to judgment.” These are rightfully left to the judgment of our merciful and loving God. Our offering of funeral prayers is intended to comfort, and our refraining from offering a funeral in extreme circumstances is only intended to instruct. By both means, the Holy Church commends us to living in the Light of our Risen Lord who leads us to righteousness and all good things. We pray that the Lord grants everlasting rest to the souls of those who have so tragically taken their own lives, comforts those who mourn, and strengthens the faith of all.