Chapter of Understanding
Suicide Prevention

Susie Reece

Susie Reece

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A Stigma That Won’t Die: The History of Suicide Ideology

How did suicide stigma begin? Why is this stigma still so prevalent today? Let’s take a quick look at Suicide’s history to get a better idea of how today’s societal ideology of it came to be.

During the reign of Rome and Greece, suicide was acceptable under certain circumstances.

  • If you suffered from intolerable pain or illness.
  • If you had already been condemned to die by the government.
  • And if you had suffered grave misfortunes.

Life was different then. Although many worshipped Gods, people were thought to be in control of their own fate. There were those who decried death by one’s own hands, but overall early society had a more accepting ideology concerning suicide. It is this outlook that deserves our attention. Suicide was not considered a horrible choice or a criminal act.

Early Christianity brought the rate of death by suicide to a new high. Christianity had quickly garnered attention for its doctrine. It offered people (often with a limited knowledge of the religion) an irresistible afterlife. This became a major issue as more and more Christians sought martyrdom over life. Suicide was almost the death of the Christian religion.

Jewish religious leaders came to see suicide as an intentional self-inflicted act. They described suicide as “one who destroys him/herself knowingly.” The Jewish religion was the first group to take a formal stand against those who had died by suicide.

The deceased were not entitled to a proper Jewish burial.

Family and friends were not allowed to publicly mourn the person who had died.

This anti-suicide movement was furthered when St. Augustine formally decreed suicide to be a crime for any person of the Christian faith. His sanction set laws in motion that would be heavily enacted during the Middle Ages.

In the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas took it upon himself to further investigate suicide within the Biblical text. Even though there are less than 10 documented suicides, Aquinas deemed suicide an act against God. He furthered his idea by saying that it was a sin, of which one could never repent. This became the basis for the Catholic Church’s view that suicide was a “one-way” ticket to Purgatory.

Death by suicide had been established as an unnatural act. Many believed a person who died from suicide had been inhabited by demons or even the Devil himself. Society feared those who either suffered from suicidal ideation or had died from suicide. These irrational fears often spread onto the surviving family of the deceased.

In later years, governments began to seek action against those who had completed suicide.

  • The body of the recently deceased would be seized.
  • The person (although dead) would be publicly re-tried for their crime.
  • The corpse would then be subjected to barbaric acts according to the governing body of law.

A common punishment was beheading. Once removed, the head would then be speared onto a spike and stood in front of the city gates to act as a warning to others. The body would then be tossed out and was typically eaten by wild animals. This tactic was used to further shame the person who had died.

Some were publicly dragged through their neighborhood and then hanged at the gallows. Many were buried under the gallows as it was a crime to give them a proper Christian burial.

Bodies were buried with stakes through their hearts. These might also be buried at a crossroads which was a symbol of the cross. Superstition led many to believe that the level of activity at this chosen burial spot would deter the deceased from rising from their grave.

Anyone who had completed suicide gave up their right to property or to bequeathing their property. This meant the government would seize their belongings and take ownership. Those who died from suicide were seen as less than human and therefore they could not have legally own property.

Anyone who attempted suicide was arrested, tried, and then sentenced to death. In other words, “Don’t attempt to kill yourself, or we will do it for you.”

Over time these laws were enacted less and less. The Renaissance period proved to be the strongest advocate for the humane treatment of those who had either died by suicide or endured suicidal ideation. Enlightenment and a growing curiosity into the minds of those who suffered led the way for pioneering research in the area of suicide.

We have a grim history with suicide. The idea that suicide is BAD has been bred into our way of thinking.

  • We have lived in fear (for centuries) of something as simple as a word.
  • We have been conditioned to ignore anyone who has been lost to suicide.
  • We have been trained to avoid anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide.

In 1961, England and Wales enacted the Suicide Act which decriminalized suicide. In 1983, the Roman Catholic Church reversed their law prohibiting proper funeral rites and burials to those who had died by suicide. This is recent history.

Time created the stigma that surrounds suicide and time must be a part of the equation that heals it. In time and with proper education, knowledge, and eventually universal understanding we can move past these barbaric ideas and bring peace not only to those who suffer today but also to those humans that history erased.