“What ceremony else?” cries Laertes in Hamlet, as his dead sister Ophelia is buried to a single tolling bell with a meagre liturgy, as all suspected suicides used to be (and in some churches still are, even being refused interment in hallowed ground). No cross bearer, no incense, no holy water, no singing of psalms or a requiem; just a few flowers strewn in the path of the coffin. “What ceremony else?” Laertes demands to know in a more indignant tone. The officiating priest explains:
Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful.
And but that great command oversways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Until the last Trump; for charitable prayers
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown upon her.
Yet here she is allowed her virgin crams,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.
This is Denmark, but Shakespeare was imbued with the Book of Common Prayer. The cause of Ophelia’s death was “doubtful”, and it was customary in England to bury suicides in unhallowed ground – often on a roadside – where an iron cross would be driven through the heart of the corpse and passers by would be invited to heap shards, flints and stones upon it. Laertes isn’t happy: “Must there no more be done ?” he cries. “No more be done!” the priest replies, expounding:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her,
As to peace-parted souls.
Laertes is incredulous: angry at the unfeeling priest and dismayed by the heartless liturgical rules of canon law.
..I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling.
..Oh, treble woe,
Fall ten times treble on thou cursed head
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of.
It is the second paragraph of Canon B38 ‘Of the Burial of the Dead’ which remains an offence to many:
2. It shall be the duty of every minister to bury, according to the rites of the Church of England, the corpse or ashes of any person deceased within his cure or of any parishioners or persons whose names are entered on the church electoral roll of his parish whether deceased within his cure or elsewhere that is brought to a church or burial ground or cemetery under his control in which the burial or interment of such corpse or ashes may lawfully be effected, due notice being given; except the person deceased have died unbaptized, or being of sound mind have laid violent hands upon himself, or have been declared excommunicate for some grievous and notorious crime and no man to testify to his repentance; in which case and in any other case at the request of the relative, friend, or legal representative having charge of or being responsible for the burial he shall use at the burial such service as may be prescribed or approved by the Ordinary, being a service neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter: Provided that, if a form of service available for the burial of suicides is approved by the General Synod under Canon B 2, that service shall be used where applicable instead of the aforesaid service prescribed or approved by the Ordinary, unless the person having charge or being responsible for the burial otherwise requests.
That is to say, instead of providing the normal funeral liturgy (whether BCP or Common Worship), “a form of service” might be considered more suitable. Should there be any question about whether the deceased who has “laid violent hands upon himself” was, in fact, “of sound mind”, the vicar must adhere to a subsequent direction:
6. If any doubts shall arise whether any person deceased may be buried according to the rites of the Church of England, the minister shall refer the matter to the bishop and obey his order and direction.
And, rather like the priest officiating at Ophelia’s funeral, some of those episcopal orders and directions might seem liturgically cold and pastorally unfeeling. And so the General Synod of the Church of England is to debate the matter, or, according to the Mail on Sunday, ‘Church of England to “legalise” suicide“‘, which is about as profound as the tabloids go.
Essentially, the motion before Synod will permit vicars to give people who kill themselves the same funeral service as those who die of natural causes. That is not to say that it might not be ‘tweaked’ to be a little more pertinent to the individual circumstances: a good parish priest will always seek to know as much as they are able about the deceased, in order to personalise and empathise. In that sense, the freedom to present “a form of service” that deviates from the norm must be available, not least because it is entirely possible for a robotic vicar to reel out the usual words without so much as a second thought for how they might sound to the lonely, desolated and traumatised. What guilt might some of their families feel that they did not do enough to prevent the tragedy?
But this amendment is not without increased significance in the context of the debate about ‘assisted suicide’. If those who opt for licit third-party ‘assistance’ in dying are to be granted Christian burial according to the BCP, why not those who commit suicide illicitly? If the Church manifests its disapproval of suicide (as a breach of the Commandment not to kill) by withholding or curtailing the funeral liturgy, is it to do so in cases where the deceased – who must, by (proposed) law, be “of sound mind” – has been ‘assisted’ into eternity?
This might all seem very liturgically trifling if not theologically irrelevant, not least because most (if not all) Anglican vicars are already granting suicides the same funeral rites as those who died naturally, invariably without any reference to their bishops. This particular canon law (if they know it exists) is routinely set aside, if only out of compassion for the bereaved family left behind to pick up the pieces. Why should the Church of England seem hostile at a time of grief and mourning? How is it compassionate and merciful to explain the finer points of Canon Law to those who are distraught? What priest can know beyond doubt whether the deceased was mentally imbalanced when they took those pills, jumped off the bridge or threw themselves under that train?
According to the Samaritans, the UK suicide rate is around 6,000 per annum. With all of these tragedies – each one an individual tale of mental trauma and suffering – it is the primary function of the Church of England to manifest pastoral care; to show God’s mercy and compassion; to weep with those who weep. It is no longer appropriate (if ever it were) for the Church to present hurdles to the bereaved which might cause them to conceal the true circumstances surrounding their loved one’s death in order to somehow ‘qualify’ for burial in accordance with the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. God knows, coming to terms with a family suicide is harrowing enough without the Church conveying to their family and friends that the manner of their passing might somehow deprive them of God’s mercy or separate them from His love.
Of course, the deceased might be in another place, along with unrepentant paedophiles, murderers, rapists and all those who have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. But that is a matter for God’s judgment: liturgical discrimination against suicides is not a differentiation of any theological integrity or pastoral virtue.