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Preparing Liturgies for Victims of Suicide

30 November, 1999

Pat Seavers book gives some background into suicide itself, its effect on families and the local Christian community, general historical viewpoints, and the unique characteristics of funeral liturgies developed for such occasions.

84 pp. Columba Press, 2006. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie .



Chapter 1: Suicide: Some Facts and Figures
Chapter 2: Why Suicide is Wrong
Chapter 3: Preparing for the Liturgies and Paraliturgies
Chapter 4: The Family’s Farewell
Chapter 5: The Reception of the Body in the Church
Chapter 6: Preparing the Funeral Mass
Chapter 7: The Introductory Rites
Chapter 8: The Liturgy of the Word
Chapter 9: The Liturgy of the Eucharist
Chapter 10: Communion Rite
Chapter 11: The Rite of Committal
Chapter 12: Conclusion

From a Meditation by Cardinal Newman



Pat Seavers book gives some background into suicide itself, its effect on families and the local Christian community, general historical viewpoints, and the unique characteristics of funeral liturgies developed for such occasions. Despite is size, it is very comprehensive in its scope covering all aspects of the badly needed liturgy and paraliturgies from preparing all involved to the family’s farewell, through the liturgy of the Word, communion rite to the rite of committal.

This helpful book was written for families bereaved through suicide, for professional liturgists, pastoral care workers, hospital chaplains and people in general who work in the area of social services. Its style is very compassionate and supportive. The Reference section is very thorough.


Chapter One: Suicide: Some facts and figures
‘The increasing suicide trend… in Ireland is now a major public health problem… In recent years, suicide has become the principle cause of death in men aged 15 to 34 years, surpassing the number of deaths from road traffic accidents’ (P. McKeown, Suicide in Ireland (1) In fact, suicide has become so common in this country that it is now ranked as the fourth highest cause of death among males. Even worse is the fact that Ireland’s rate of suicide is among the worst in Europe and has been increasing dramatically in recent years, now being the principle cause of death in young people, exceeding even accidents and cancer. 30% of all deaths in the 15-24 age group in 2003 were recorded as suicide, while for the 25-34 age group, the number of suicides stood at 23%.

Statistics show that in the first half of the nineteen sixties, an average of 64 people per annum died by suicide. We had 71 ‘deaths attributed to suicide’ reported by the Central Statistics Office in 1945, while by 1980, the number had risen to 216. The highest number of deaths by suicide was 514 and this was recorded for the year 1998. In 1997 there were 443 suicides, and this increased to 457 by 2004. The Irish Independent of 26-4-2005 quoted 444 self-inflicted deaths, under the heading: ‘Suicide Levels Spiralling To Epidemic Proportions, Says Coroner.’ However dramatic the quotation, the statistics published by the Central Statistics Office on 18 January 2005 related to the year 2003 and not the following year – a cautionary example of how the media can manipulate data when dealing with this delicate matter.

In examining the topic of suicide it is important to include some material concerning parasuicide. This is the term used to describe a deliberate act of self-harm which, while it does not result in death, is related to suicide – being either a genuine failed attempt or the ‘cry for help’ of someone seriously contemplating ending life in this way. The statistics for parasuicide attempts are staggering. The National Parasuicide Registry Ireland Annual General Report 2003 tells us that, based on data collected, ‘there were approximately 11,200 presentations due to deliberate self harm, involving approximately 8,800 individuals in Ireland in 2003. This represents’ a significant 3.6% increase on the rate of 202 per 100,000 in 2002. One important fact to note is that unlike completed acts of suicide, where more males than females are involved, incidence of self harm is more common than among females: and this is so in everyone of the Regional Health Authority Areas in Ireland for 2003. The notable exceptions were in the cities of Limerick, Galway and to a less extent Cork.’ The breakdown of the figure for parasuicide quoted above – ‘approximately 8,800’ – gives us 3762 males and 5024, females. However, the statistics indicate that there is ‘a narrowing of the difference between male and female rates of deliberate self harm.’ A startling fact that we are faced with in this report is the statement that’ approximately one in every 150 adolescent girls was treated in hospital in 2003 as a result of deliberate self harm.’ Another item of note that chills the heart and mind is the figure of 3 ‘persons’ between the age of 5-9 who set out to do themselves harm, two of these episodes ending in death. Perhaps the sensational way in which the media report suicide is a necessary evil, as a way of bringing the whole issue of suicide and parasuicide into the open. One such newspaper article of the current year, 2005, claimed that every forty-five minutes, someone tries to end life by suicide. Suicide and parasuicide are now so common that few families have not been affected. And there seems to be little evidence that things will improve. In the latest publication (2005) of the National Suicide Research Foundation we read: ‘It is a matter of concern that over the last three years we have not detected any evidence of a decrease or plateau in rates of deliberate self harm in young Irish men and women.’

Suicide Decriminalised
Suicide was decriminalised on 1 July 1993, after which it became unacceptable to use the expression’ commit suicide’. This is a very sensitive issue and should be noted by all who make contact with the families of suicide victims, at whatever level. Dan Neville tells us that: ‘Hanging for attempted suicide took place in London up to 1860 … (and that) the last charge in our courts of attempted suicide was in 1967 …’ The feeling among care workers, the gardaí, and the medical profession is that the increased figures of 21 % after 1993 indicate that, prior to this date, there was a reluctance on the part of family, coroners and clergy to admit that suicide had taken place. There is some evidence for this view and for a feeling that reluctance to record suicides accurately is still a factor that has to be considered. Referring to the suicide statistics for 2001, Terry Lynch, a Limerick doctor who is also a psychotherapist, states that: ‘While these figures are alarming, many experts believe that the true suicide rate is probably significantly higher, due to the under-reporting of suicide as the cause of death.’ When one recalls the deep shame associated with the criminal as well as the other religious, social and medical aspects of suicide, it should not be too difficult to understand why, especially in rural Ireland, denial and collusion should be so common. Even from the point of view of such things as life insurance cover, there may be much to fear, and since ‘risk factors’ may include ‘history of psychiatric illness’ many family members of suicide victims feel uncomfortable at the thought that they too could be vulnerable should this weakness have a genetic basis, or be used as a weighting against them by some insurance companies. Also, as Gerard Green remarks:

The surviving family of someone who commits (sic) suicide often experience a sense of guilt in relation to the suicide, but undoubtedly a deep sense of shame is the strongest feeling experienced by survivors in relation to the community. The family feel stigmatised by the suicide and under scrutiny from the community.

In all our dealings with the families of suicide and parasuicide victims, this is something one should not forget.

The Reasons for Suicide
Once we come to the issue of ‘Why did they do it?’ we are in an area that is fraught with mixed emotions and complex reasons. Edmund Hogan, writing in The Furrow in 2001, tells us that the most common factors that indicate a risk of suicide are:

the presence of a serious mental illness. .. the abuse of alcohol or chemical substances; a prior attempt at suicide; severe physical illness; unemployment; the break-up of relationships … dysfunctional relationships… social isolation. A major life event such as a bereavement, loss of one’s job, a great financial loss, or a shaming discovery, creates a risk of suicide.

Another reason that is frequently mentioned as a cause for the growing rate of suicide in Ireland is the country’s increasing wealth and ‘materialism’. There is no doubt about the strong correlation between the growth of Ireland’s suicide rate and our increased prosperity. Erich Fromm tells us that ‘The poorer countries have the lowest incidence of suicide, and the increasing material prosperity in Europe was accompanied by an increasing number of suicides.’ Even a cursory glance at the graphs which plot the development of both in Ireland, show that the sharp increase in the number of suicide victims occurred in 1970, just at the time that we as a nation were beginning to benefit from our entry into the EEC. However, to prove the correlation between the two would be an almost impossible task. Among religious people there is a conviction that the drop off in religious practice and belief has played a major part in the high incidence of suicide in this country. Back in 1897, Émile Durkheim published the results of his now famous research: Suicide: A Study in Sociology. ‘It showed that suicide was not simply an individual act but a product of social forces external to the individual.’ He studied suicide, and the effects that religious belief and practice and the integration of individuals into the church community, had on its incidence. Though the study is dated, one of the main conclusions, that there was a less likely chance of Catholics taking their own lives than people of no faith, is of interest. In this country in general, the majority of our young people do not belong to that ‘homogeneous religious community, unified and integrated by uniform belief and standardised ritual’ that was the cement that held Catholic communities together in Durkheim’s study. Consequently, with the falloff in religious belief and practice, it should come as no surprise that the suicide rate is increasing. However, this conclusion is vigorously contradicted by Michael Kelleher, who tells us that:

The greatest fall-off in church attendance is in urban areas, some of which, such as Dublin, have shown no increase in suicide. Church loyalty is most obvious in rural areas where the increase in suicide has been greatest. Women also are ceasing to attend church, yet their suicide rates have remained virtually unchanged.

Possibly, the most comprehensive treatment is presented by Gerard Green who, in searching for the logic behind self-destructions, lists twelve main reasons as follows:

(1) to escape from an intolerable burden or situation.
(2) to punish the survivors.
(3) to gain attention.
(4) to manipulate others.
(5) to join a deceased in death.
(6) to avoid punishment.
(7) as self-punishment.
(8) to avoid becoming a burden.
(9) to avoid the effects of a dreaded disease.
(10) to pursue an irrational, impulsive whim.
(11) to seek martyrdom.
(12) to express love.

In analysing the reasons why anybody should take his or her own life, there seems to be one common factor: the most basic motivator of all human action, the avoidance of pain. But pain is part of the human condition. In his encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life), Pope John Paul treats of ‘The Spirit who transforms suffering into salvific love… It is this pain that will bring about the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ. . .’ And of course, in the final months of his own life, the late pope preached this message so eloquently by the example of his own public suffering. But not all of us are capable of the type of heroism that John Paul possessed, and so no fault should be attributed to those who fail when it comes to the avoidance of suffering. Most of us try and avoid the pain of dying to self to which we are all called and into which all Christians are baptised. The basic theme in the sacramental mime of baptism is death by drowning, but it is a death that brings forth new life. This is an important theme that can be highlighted, especially on the occasion of the ‘Transfer of the Body to the Church’, but it must be treated with great care.

While trying to make sense of a death by suicide, one of the things that often puzzles friends and parents alike may be the fact that in the few days immediately prior to their death the young people were in such great form, as to convince their immediate circle that the previous gloom and depression was a thing of the past and that they had at last conquered whatever it was that had been weighing upon them. Even close friends and best mates are all too often stunned at having been part of the ‘mighty craic’ the night prior to their friend’s suicide. ‘I had never seen him in better form’ is a constant leit-motiv. Without adequate research, it is dangerous to be dogmatic, but from listening to the stories of families bereaved through suicide, it would appear that the sudden lifting of the young people’s spirits could be attributed more to their sense of relief at having come to a firm decision to ‘end it all’ rather than from a sense of achievement that they had conquered their demons. And in a way, perhaps these few days of joy and happiness are a kind of gift that the son, daughter or friend bestows on those nearest and dearest to them. Are they subconsciously thinking that their euphoria leading up to their death will in some way convince their inner circle of family and pals that they couldn’t have known what they were about to do and consequently feel puzzled instead of feeling guilty for having failed to spot the signals? It is a nice thought and may not be too far from the truth.

The Categories of Suicide
Closely related to the reasons for suicide are the various categories into which it may be slotted. Bernard Haring believes that suicide is in many cases ‘the result of social death, of being deprived of the most basic and vital communications’. And although he does not mention it himself, there is a latent message of revenge, as he quotes the suicide: ‘You have already deprived me of those relationships that give meaning to life: now you have my dead body to bury.’ This aspect of suicide is an issue that is consistently avoided, and with good reason. There is little doubt among those who have even a limited pastoral experience, that the correct place to address this issue is in a carefully controlled counselling environment. Egoistic suicide, according to him, covers the situation where’ a person does not want to be for others or to live with others. Or it can be a plain act of despair about the meaning of one’s life under concrete circumstances, or even despair about any meaning to life.’ Self-offering is rare and is best exemplified by the action of Christ himself, who said, ‘The Father loves me because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will …’ ‘At the other end of the scale is the type of suicide seen in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which was rebellion against God and was intended to show that I am the Lord of my life.’ Elsewhere, Haring deals with suicide as a possible form of euthanasia, brought about when the elderly and the infirm are told ‘explicitly or without so many words… that they are a burden to others and to society.’ As in the case of every death, but most especially in the case of suicide, one searches for the cause and this can and usually is foolish and judgemental. Each case is different and nobody fully understands the motive except, perhaps, the victim. In pursuing the futile search for answers, one usually ends up causing hurt and injury to those nearest and dearest to the deceased, and being seen as thoughtless and uncaring. Those really concerned to be of help would be better advised to pay more attention to those who are trying to survive the terrible pain of this moment.

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