Eventually every pastor will be faced with the question of what to do about the theological issue of suicide, either because he will be asked to preside at the funeral of someone who has taken his or her own life, or because he will be asked to offer prayers for their repose. What is the proper response, both theologically and pastorally? May one legitimately preside at the funeral of a suicide or offer a memorial service (such as a Panikhida) for their repose? What are we to think about their final eternal destiny?
It is no good pretending that the weight of Christian history does not offer a dark view of the matter. The classic view, at least in the West, was expressed well by G. K. Chesterton (d. 1936). In his book Orthodoxy, he wrote comparing the martyr to the suicide in the following words: “A suicide is obviously the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end…. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually he destroys the universe…. One man [the martyr] flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence. Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren’s”.
Ouch. Well, no one ever accused GKC of mincing words. And putting aside the intensity of his prose, he does express the attitude of the Church of his day which steadfastly refused to bury a suicide in consecrated ground. And this attitude was well understood for some time before Chesterton put pen to paper. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet knew that “the Everlasting has fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”.
Given this negative view of suicide and the presumption that a suicide would be eternally lost, we may still ask the question, “What’s so wrong with suicide?” Obviously suicide is always a tragedy and always to be avoided, but why did our forefathers feel that those committing the act were to be reprobated in this way? Please note here that I am discussing active suicide, the act wherein a person takes his or her own life or arranges for another to take his or her life, not the issue of what is sometime called “passive euthanasia”, wherein a person allows himself to be “unplugged” from life-support machines in a hospital and let death take its course. That is also an important issue, but it is not the one I am discussing here.
I think it is important to examine the question of motivation when assessing the relative morality of any act. That is, one must look at the question of why a person commits suicide, and what he or she hopes to accomplish in others by the act. In some cases the motivation is to inflict hurt and pain upon others. That person wants to kill himself so that those finding the body afterward will be filled with shock, trauma, and terrible lasting anguish. The subtext of the suicide note reads, “You’ll be sorry for what you’ve done to me!” This act of suicide is not simply aimed at extinguishing one’s own life, but more importantly uses this self-destruction as a way of inflicting grief upon the survivors. It is as much an act of aggression as of self-harm. In this scenario, if the suicide’s body were not discovered, the act of suicide would have no point. The man killing himself does not want to simply die, but to reach out beyond the grave and hurt others. If he simply vanished by (for example) throwing himself off a ship into the sea leaving his surviving family to believe he was still alive somewhere in the world, the act of suicide would have no point, for the whole purpose of the act was to inflict pain upon those discovering that he had killed himself.
Given this motivation, one can readily see why some might be so opposed to the act, and why it opined that the dead man’s chances for eternal bliss were so slim. But not all suicides (or, as I suspect, actually very few suicides) spring from this motivation. Of the people I knew who killed themselves, their primary motivation was not to inflict guilt or pain upon those surviving, but simply to make their own interior pain stop. This is the way it is, I am told, with those who kill themselves when they are clinically depressed. They do not want to die; they just feel that they cannot go on living in such pain, and suicide seems to them to be the only way to make the pain go away. Such people deserve our sympathy and our prayers—including our corporate liturgical prayers. It may be that some liturgical tweaking could be done with the prayers normally used at Christian burials expressing the ambiguous and tragic nature of the situation and accentuating the mercy of God. That would be for bishops to decide and to bless. But it seems to me that clergy should be allowed to preside at such funerals, and to offer the comfort of the Church’s intercession for the dead. Indeed, the bishops of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas—the forerunner of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA—had a decade ago issued a pastoral letter tending in this direction. In the case of suicide, as with so many other things, motivation is everything.