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