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You shall bury him: burial, suicide and the development of Catholic law and theology

Abstract

Whether physician-assisted dying should be legalised is a major debate in medical ethics and much has been written on it from both secular and religious perspectives. Less, however, has been written on one of the potential consequences of legalised physician-assisted death: whether those who undergo this procedure will be given funerals by religious groups who oppose the practice. This article investigates the Catholic Church’s attitude to the burial of suicides, and how Catholic canon law has approached the question of ecclesiastic funerals for suicides throughout its history. From the sixth through the late 20th century, the Church technically did not bury anyone who willfully committed suicide. Broad shifts in the cultural attitude towards suicide, due in large part to new understandings of mental illness as disease, had a powerful effect on Catholic thought and practice in modernity, and the Church eventually dropped the ban on funerals for suicides from its law code altogether in the 1980s. The legalisation of physician-assisted death, however, raises again the possibility of a prohibition on funerals. The Church was able to drop its restrictions on funerals since suicide was seen as an act beyond the control of the deceased and thus worthy of mercy and compassion. In cases of physician-assisted dying, the patient must have consciously and willingly agreed to the procedure, undermining this understanding of suicide. The history of canon law on suicide funerals reveals the complexity of the Catholic attitude towards suicide and provides an important context to the current debate around physician-assisted death, and conflicts between medicine and religion more broadly.

  • suicide
  • catholicism
  • theology
  • physician assisted dying
  • law
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