The law is an ass, as the old saying goes. It’s a wonder
that many people end up in the dock – and that many others don’t. In the Middle
Ages, animals were sometimes put on trial for crimes like murder and theft.
Perhaps even stranger than that: dead people have been put on trial.
And punished too. At one time, someone who committed suicide
was considered guilty of a serious offence. If it could be shown that they were
of sound mind when they did so, they would be punished by being denied a
Christian burial. In those days, people considered that each human life
belonged to God. He had a plan for everyone, sending trials and troubles to
test character and determine where someone deserved to go when they passed
away: to Heaven or to Hell.
Consequently, suicide was seen as a very serious thing: a
rebellion against God himself. When someone ended their own life prematurely,
they destroyed the plan God had created for them. Suicide was therefore a
mortal sin, meriting hell-fire and damnation. As a sign of this, a suicide’s
body was not buried in the consecrated ground of a churchyard, but at a
crossroad, lying with its head pointing north and often with a stake through
Siting the grave at a crossroad was intended to confuse the
ghost of the dead person. If it rose from the grave and wanted to seek living
people as prey, it wouldn’t know which way to go – ghosts were seen as
dangerous but stupid. The ghost would stay at the crossroad all night, trying
to puzzle out the right direction to go, until sunrise drove it back
underground. Because of this, it was thought a dangerous thing to pass a
crossroad during the hours of darkness. The ghosts of suicides buried there
might be haunting the spot, ready to seize eagerly on a living person.
Similar reasoning applied to the stake driven through a
suicide’s heart. That was meant to keep the body’s spirit in the grave or to
prevent the body rising to face God at Judgement Day. By committing suicide,
the dead person had already passed judgement on themselves: they were not
worthy of eternal happiness, but of eternal damnation. The direction in which
the body was laid – towards the north – was an extra precaution. Christians are
traditionally buried facing east, in the direction of the rising sun, because
that is a symbol of resurrection and Judgement Day.
Over time, these harsh attitudes towards suicide began to
soften. The church began to allow religious burials, but the graves of suicides
were still kept separate from those of people who had allowed God to determine
the day of their passing. Because suicides had rejected life, they were buried
in the north of a churchyard, away from the sun and its life-giving rays. Even
after suicide ceased to be a criminal offence, it was seen as a shameful act,
bringing disgrace on the family of the dead person.
Suicides were often disguised as accidents, either by the
suicidal person or by those who discovered the dead body. In this way, they
could avoid disgrace or avoid financial difficulties for those left behind.
Today, people who commit suicide can be buried or cremated like anyone else,
but suicide remains a very difficult and disturbing topic.