Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rites of Desecration

Suicide, Sacrilege and the Crossroads Burial


Although suicide has always been considered to be the most personal of acts, it has a complex social and cultural history in the Western world – one that has been shaped by three-thousand years of shifting moralities, public opinions, popular superstitions, religious beliefs, medical interpretations and philosophical debates.

In ancient Greek and Roman societies, “self-death” was generally treated with a sense of ambivalence. Philosophers pondered the subject with an open mind, balancing notions of morality and free will, and ultimately believing it better to depart in peace rather than live a life of misery. Elite s
oldiers were expected to follow a hero's code, where death by one's own hand was embraced over surrender and battlefield disgrace. Medical practitioners routinely assisted in mercy killings, providing poisons to patients who wished to end prolonged sickness or suffering. Even members of the nobility, when faced with criminal charges and public shame, considered suicide to be dignified means for salvaging one's personal legacy from total disgrace.

This relatively tolerant attitude would change dramatically with the rise of Christianity. The early Christian sects themselves gave little value to life in this world. Following the example of their executed messiah, they celebrated the acts of martyrs who embraced death rather than renounce their faith. But as the religion became institutionalized by the fifth-century this outlook would change.
Suicide was unequivocally declared a moral abomination, a sinful act of violence against God directed by the Devil himself, “which shall not be forgiven... neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
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