Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Beginning To Talk About Suicide

It’s accepted that patients aren’t entitled to confidentiality from their chaplains even though we often tell them and their carers that they are. Chaplains aren’t alone in this; psychotherapists, doctors and other health care workers are in the same position. We place a huge emphasis on confidentiality but when a patient says that they’re suicidal all that high-mindedness suddenly flies out of the window. We feel we’re somehow legally and morally obliged to tell others so that they can exert their power over someone who is already demonstrably distressed. That’s about the long and short of it, even though this approach has a Judeo-Christian rather than Pagan basis.

The debate around suicide and assisted suicide is going to heat up in the coming years as our elderly population increases, becomes more politically active and our economies change. Whilst other religions have some kind of foundation for their beliefs and actions Paganism hasn’t yet got to grips with this fundamental issue of personal choice vs. doing no harm. I have some particular answers but don't believe they're final. But I firmly believe we need to face this subject clearly, without sentimentality, without recourse to cliché or fear. How, otherwise, can we offer an honest service?

Suicide is self-killing so perhaps it’s worth identifying what the self is in relation to philosophy, society, the law, Paganism and other religions.


The greatest minds in history have been unable to agree on what the Self is. Some philosophers suggest that the soul is the true Self, some that consciousness defines it, some that the Self is only knowable through its relationship with the Other. The debate continues but immediately, the concept of what self-killing is becomes difficult.

State and Society: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ suicide

The State has differing responses to our body dependent on how well we conform to what society demands. If we function outside of acceptable rules - most countries outlaw suicide - we can be incarcerated: if we are seen to be mentally ill we can be imprisoned with no set time for our release. Volunteering to go to war is perceived as self-sacrifice rather than suicide, the intent being to save others rather than to purposefully kill oneself.

The Law

To whom do you belong? Slaves bodies are owned and used, quite legally, all over the world. In countries where prostitution is legal someone other than the person selling their body owns the bodies of prostitutes for a period of time. We are legally required to be present at a certain place for a period of time at many stages of our lives. Cells, organs and other body parts from living and dead people are used for various purposes, legally, without the consent of the living person or the next of kin of a dead person, in all modern western hospitals, often for financial profit. We believe our bodies and our lives belong to us: legally, they do not.


All of the mainstream religions are clear that lives belong, not to us, but to their god.

All other major religions perceive suicide as martyrdom when it is done as a protest against oppression; otherwise it’s an act of personal will in defiance of the will of their gods.

Although non-Pagan religions have some official doctrine there are many different theologies within each. Paganism has some ways of being from which we can draw some general conclusions.

Paganism can legitimately be perceived as a reaction against institutional and personal abuse of power as well as a divinely inspired religion. Like the Dharmic religions, Paganism tends to view human incarnation as a part of the cycle of incarnation in general. Theoretically, a blade of grass has the same value as the life of a human child. Similarly many Pagans perceive human existence as a process of the soul gaining experience. However, within Paganism in general there is no modern theology of judgement. Being born disabled is not seen as punishment or an opportunity to learn something in which we are deficient. That said, I have encountered Pagan dismay that a person who has committed suicide must now ‘Start all over again.’

Paganism in general affirms personal choice and personal freedom, but this becomes difficult when suicide has an impact on children, partners, family and friends. What responsibilities do Pagans have in relationships with others? “Do as you will, as long as it harms none,” can be interpreted as a prohibition against suicide for people who have economic, emotional or physical responsibilities for others: overwhelming responsibility can be a factor in suicide.

If only theoretically, Paganism functions within the concept of community. In practice this means that Pagans who fall outside of community through physical or emotional illness or other isolating factors can experience a profound isolation from friends, spirituality and religion, from religious experience and support: what responsibilities do Pagan communities have in these situations, bearing in mind that isolation is an important factor in suicide?

A way forward

The oldest extant European code of conduct are the Brehon laws - a number of sets over a long period of time - and this may be a place for serious scholars to look for clues about how our cultural ancestors may have felt about suicide (see Szabo, N.). Another source of information are Pagan histories: Boudicca killed herself rather than be taken prisoner. Accounts of dying of grief in many myths have a resonance with suicide: Anglo-Saxon and Norse Sagas and Eddas, Irish, Scots and Brythonic legends may offer some guidance.

Pagans look to the natural world for inspiration and it’s dubious that animals intentionally kill themselves. (Dinely,. J. Dunlop, C. Legros G) there are any number of companion animals who’ve ‘pined to death’ refusing to eat or drink after the death of someone they loved, alongside some bereaved wild animals, but they do not seem to purposefully seek death. However, suicide is a greater cause of death worldwide than war or murder. (World Health Organisation) and Pagans do kill themselves.

We can address this in a number of ways the most straightforward being to apply ourselves to the problem of community. We live in an atomised world. To my knowledge, there is no Pagan community that exists to serve people in distress. There are temporary communities, groups of Pagans who come together from time to time most often to celebrate the festivals and sometimes in order to support an individual who has become unwell or who is dying. Several attempts have been made in the UK, US and in mainland Europe to create a dedicated group who will care for the dying and the dead, but each has failed to exist in the way that Chevra Kadisha do in Judaism, or to create routines that help the individual, family and community to deal with death that every other religion possesses. This will come in time, but right now there is an urgent need for a specifically Pagan resource - one based in the day-to-day lives of every one of us rather than a book or two on a minority of Pagans shelves - for the isolated, disenfranchised, overwhelmed and suffering Pagan.


Dinely,. J (2008) Do Dolphins Commit Suicide in Captivity? www.marineanimalwelfare.com/suicide.htm
Dunlop,. C. Do Octopuses commit suicide? www.tonmo.com/articles/octosuicide.php
King, E. Boudicca Revolts (2007) Digging Up The Romans. Museum of London www.museumoflondon.org.uk/learning/features_facts/digging/invasion/e1.html
Legros., G Martin-Eauclaire., C. M. F Cattaert D (1998) The myth of scorpion suicide: are scorpions insensitive to their own venom? Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol 201, Issue 18 2625-2636.
Szabo N users.aol.com/gburch1/lawhistl.html
World Health Organisation www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi. I read your post on the issue of suicide in the pagan community and I really liked it. In my real life job as a support worker I use the ASSIST training (and now in Alberta there is a new course coming out called Mental Health First Aid) which have helped me address concerns of suicidal persons.

It would be nice, though, to have a pagan viewpoint on suicide.