The Bizarrely Severe Punishments For Committing Suicide

“What a silly thing to do, he thought. What a goddam silly thing to do. You wont even be there to watch their faces.” —James Jones, From Here to Eternity

In A Nutshell

Suicide has long been deemed a mortal sin in God’s eyes, but that’s not the only way that those who take their own lives have been traditionally condemned. France’s Louis XIV made it a major offense to commit suicide, for which the accused would be put on trial and, if found guilty, dragged through the streets, hung by their feet, denied a proper burial and have their possessions confiscated. In England, the punishment was being dumped into a pit at a crossroads and having a stake driven through the body.

The Whole Bushel

Suicide has also been called self-murder, a term that makes the Catholic church’s position on it quite clear. It’s long been seen a mortal sin in the eyes of God, and even secular governments have tried some pretty bizarre methods to stop people from committing suicide.

In 1670, France’s Louis XIV extended many of the French laws by issuing a general ordinance. Included in this were details about how those who committed suicide would be viewed—and what would happen to them after they were dead. Suicide was now a criminal act, as the king declared it was treason against himself and against God. So, the case would be taken to the courts.

The deceased was put on trial. (This had been a practice for nearly a century, both in France and outside of it, but this was now a legal, official matter, and the first time formal guidelines had been created to outline the process the victim-criminal would go through.) If possible, the law stated that the corpse would be brought into the court and placed under a legal restraint. Since they obviously couldn’t speak for themselves, a representative was appointed to speak in their defense. It was usually a close family member, but if one couldn’t be found, a state attorney was appointed in their place.

If it wasn’t possible for the corpse to be in the court, all official matters were directed to the individual’s memory, which was also under all criminal restraints as the body would have been, should it have been available.

What followed was, by all accounts, a criminal trial in which the deceased’s representative tried to defend against a suicide charge. Witnesses could be questioned and re-examined, testimonies given. And if the corpse was found guilty of having committed suicide, they were dragged to the site of public executions, strung up by their feet, and denied burial. The body would eventually be cut down and discarded somewhere out of the way, and all the dead person’s possessions would be seized by the government.

Trials could drag on in some cases as trustees tried to prove a death was accidental instead of a suicide. That brings up the obvious question of corpse preservation and decay—this was also addressed in the king’s well-planned legislation. If the body of the accused grew too decomposed to be socially acceptable, it was perfectly legal to keep the body (or bones, or as much as remained) in a sack or crate for the duration of the trial. Punishments—dragging and hanging—could also still be carried out if the body was in a sack.

Before we chalk this one up to those “funny old people,” it’s important to note that those who failed at taking their own lives also faced some serious social stigma in England as late as the 1950s—suicide was still a criminal act until 1961. In 1956, 613 people were put on trial for the crime of trying to take their own lives. Of those, 33 did time in prison for their crime. Suicide had been a crime in England since the 13th century, and the consequences of being found guilty were very similar to those in the French court. Families would have their possessions seized and the deceased would be denied a proper burial.

That’s all in sharp contrast to the way suicide has been viewed in other countries, such as Japan and Greece, where it has traditionally been an honorable way out.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: When suicide was illegal
On Punishment: The Confrontation of Suicide in Old-Europe, by Lieven Vandekerckhove
Suicide ; Studies on Its Philosophy, Causes, and Prevention, by James J. O’Dea

  • Lisa 39

    I’m glad we view and handle suicide differently today, going to court to watch a dead loved one or worse, a living person who was unsucessful be put on trial would not be awesome.

    • TheMadHatter

      I’ll be happy when suicide is no longer an issue. Everyone has so much to live for no matter who they are. Also, I’d rather have a living loved one than a dead. But it would suck to have it thrown in everyone’s face that your loved one tried to kill him/herself.

      • Lisa 39

        I agree, but for those trials and punishments i would prefer my loved ones had been successful rather than have to face that alive.

  • IDontUnderstandU

    I always wondered why Japan looked at suicide like the “honorable way out.” That notion seems so backwards for a country like theirs.

    • tchase98

      Maybe its just your way of thinking that is backward. Since the western way of thinking about suicide comes from our religion where god gave us form and to destroy that form on purpose would be wrong. Since the Japanese don’t believe that way why would they believe suicide is morally wrong ? Why does that make it backward ? Because it doesn’t fit your view of the world?

      • Lisa 39

        Hi tchase, i get your point, i don’t think that its about religion for everyone, plenty of atheists don’t like suicide either, i think what they see as the honorable way out we see as the cowardly way out, but that’s cultural diversity.

    • Fabia Walker

      I believe that one of the reason’s that Japan has a lower murder rate than the majority of other countries is because instead of releasing their anger on others they are brought up in a way with a way of thinking that tells them to go out quietly- almost politely. I don’t think it’s viewed as honorable, but a reason they may have a high suicude rate is also the high amount of pressure Japanese teens are put under in school- ridiculous amounts. While in America we coddle our children WAY too much, in Japan it’s the opposite. School 6 days a week, no kinds of learning games, time out of school is expected to be spent studying- they really put far too much of an emphasis on the (not-so) importance of high school. I mean, it is important, but it’s not healthy when that’s all your life revolves around.

    • Guest

      ok

    • inconspicuous detective

      it’s not that it’s honorable. it’s that it’s less of a dishonor. you’re still admitting defeat but you are making the call — technically bowing out of the competition before you’re defeated (imagine if a sports team just up and left the field while being blown out). acknowledging a superior and then removing yourself. respect, and dignity. the japanese are not at all backward, and neither is their way of thinking. different of course, but not any less than ours.

  • I know this isn’t a humorous subject, but the phrase ‘too decomposed to be socially acceptable’ almost killed me.

    • Andy West

      I think it’s something to do with them not using the right fork.

    • lbatfish

      “Give generously when death knocks at your door.”
      —Henry Gibson, for the “United Appeal for the Dead”
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Occg29DsI7k

  • lbatfish

    Before trial, was the corpse read his/her legal rights?

    Or was the Miranda ruling more recent than that?

    • inconspicuous detective

      most redundant line: “you have the right to remain…oh screw it”

      • lbatfish

        Worth more than an upvote!

  • HowAnxious

    Sad to read about these primitive thoughts related to suicide. It takes a lot of hurt for someone to bring one’s life to an end.
    And for those who are insensitive about suicide, I’d just want you to imagine the psychological condition and life of a person for whom suicide seems to be the only way out of it all.

    • TheMadHatter

      Anyone in that situation deserves to be told that everything is going to be alright. I’d take ’em all in if I could, but there are so many who choose to go through it alone and in silence. It’s a darn shame the way some children are treated by other children and even their own families. Their families should be helping them through it all. I’m privileged that my family and church community are as loving and as caring as they are, and I want to share that love and care with the world. I will try, and I might find a way.

  • Check

    Let me share this one suicide story in the community at the school I teach at. Suicide is kind of prevalent in this town, having 5 suicides in a span of one year. That might not sounds like a lot, but this town is small and any suicide rate is too much in my opinion. Anyway, one of the victims had a facebook account that a loved one made for her after she took her life. It became kind of a shrine to the girl; friends, family, schoolmates, and anyone in the community were able to log on and comment on the girl’s tragic loss. It was full of adoration and sympathy for her and a lot of love. It was quite beautiful, actually. However, later in the school year, another girl took her own life. The family of the girl felt that the facebook page of the first girl was responsible for their daughter’s suicide, that their daughter saw the love and adoration given to the first girl and wanted the same. I’m not sure what happened thereafter, but I wonder if this facebook page DID contribute to the second girl’s motivation to actually go through with her suicide. Just throwing this out there.

    • Valdez

      There’s definitely somewhat of a copycat or contagion issue, especially amongst teens. But the family still need a lot of love and care regardless. I say this as a parent of someone who has been suicidal many times, and also self- mutilating. They need love – but somehow you have to keep the lid on making it seem the only way to get that – either in their own mind, or others.

      Rather than “shrines” in whatever form, I’d prefer the love and care be directed straight to the family – and the victim, if they survive the attempt.

    • Ian Moone

      I think it might have contributed. But it definitely the whole reason. She was probably already suicidal and seeing that was just the thing that pushed her over the edge,

      • Lisa 39

        Hi ian, i agree with you 🙂

  • Timothy53

    The shooting at the Mall in Columbia last month left three dead: Brianna Benlolo, Tyler Johnson, and Darion Aguilar. Aguilar killed the first two them turned the shotgun on himself. It was tragic all the way around. I was by the Zumiez location yesterday and it is boarded off as they are doing a remodel/clean-up. The boards are set up to be a memorial wall where people can leave messages for Brianna and Tyler. Not a single message of sadness for Darion or the Aguilar family.

    I am reminded of the suicide murderer in Lancaster County PA a number of years ago who went into an Amish School and murdered children then killed himself. He was an “English.” After the events, the people of the Amish community went to visit with his wife/widow to help her to mourn and heal. She was as much a victim of his actions as the Amish families who lost children. It takes a very big loving heart to display this true type of Christian love and forgiveness.

    I wish I had had a Sharpie. I think I would have expressed my love for Darion Aguilar’s family.

  • Valdez

    This knowledge nut is just so scary. As a parent of a suicidal person who has battled mental health problems, I can’t imagine the grief families would have endured on the receiving end of such treatment. As if shame, grief and horror were not already enough of a problem!

    I think I would have fled to the mountains or deserts with my son and taken up existence as hermits (a bit hard in some populous countries I know…)

    • Lisa 39

      My son is an heroin addict and hit rock bottom and tried to kill himself so i kind of know what you mean 🙂 he’s in rehab now, yay! Good luck with your son 🙂

      • Valdez

        He’s doing well at the moment, Lisa – and that’s really all I can ask each day – that today he be OK. Has battled on and on and got himself through Uni after a long and painful battle, and now has a good career. Mums can never give up – we are the last person on earth that will still love them no matter what.

        • Lisa 39

          Absolutely, that’s why we’re stronger than everyone else on the planet, our children need us, its not easy tho, those little darlins put us through some shit, and everyone else sticks their nose in to let us know what we’re doing wrong, so irritating, do you have other children?

          • Valdez

            Yes I have two others, both older – a boy and girl. Though when your children reach the 30s, saying boy and girl doesn’t sound right!

          • Lisa 39

            Pfft, their our babies, we can call them what ever we want!

  • GerbilActs17

    Stupid humans. “Let’s imprison them!” Oh, that’ll cure their depression.

  • Steven Radke

    When one claims to know what is “in God’s eyes” in the first sentence, I have to stop reading. What hubris…