By Protopresbyter Fr. Lambrou Fotopoulos,
Parish Priest of the Sacred Church of Saint Kosmas Aitolos in Maroussi
The two thousand year tradition of the Church teaches us without any doubt whatsoever that a person who commits suicide does not receive a funeral, unless of course they are insane.
Even when the cemeteries belonged to the Church, unlike today when they belong to the local government, those who committed suicide were not only prohibited from receiving an ecclesiastical funeral, but in silence they were buried outside the periphery of the cemetery.
This practice is not only done according to the oral tradition of the Church that goes back to Christ and the Apostles, but it is a canonical obligation according to the written Sacred Canons.
Below is the 14th Canon of Saint Timothy of Alexandria, which has Ecumenical status following its ratification by the 2nd Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod:
Canon 14 of St. Timothy
If anyone having no control of himself lays violent hands on himself or hurls himself to destruction, should an offering be made for him or not?
The Clergyman ought to discern in his behalf whether he was actually and truly out of his mind when he did it. For oftentimes those who are interested in the victim and want to have him accorded an offering and a prayer in his behalf will deliberately lie and assert that he had no control of himself. Sometimes, however, he did it as a result of influence exercised by other men, or somehow otherwise as a result of paying too little attention to circumstances, and no offering ought to be made in his behalf. It is incumbent, therefore, upon the Clergyman in any case to investigate the matter accurately, in order to avoid incurring judgment.
This divine Father has been asked whether liturgical and memorial services ought to be held for a man who has killed himself, by hurling himself down from a height, or by drowning himself, or by hanging himself, or by putting himself to death in any other manner, when he is not of sound mind, whether it be as a result of a demon or of an ailment of some sort; and the Father replies in the present Canon by stating that if any priest or any other clergyman be invited to celebrate memorial services for him, he ought to investigate well and with due accuracy whether such a man was in truth and reality out of his wits when he put himself to death. For it often happens that relatives and intimates of such a man, wishing to have him be given a memorial service and to be chanted over by the priests, and to have a liturgy held for the remission of his sins, tell lies and assert falsely that he was out of his wits, and that it was on this account that he put himself to death. Sometimes, though, one puts oneself to death either as a result of some injury or annoyance which he has received from other men, or as a result of faint-heartedness and excessive grief, or some other cause, voluntarily and while in his right mind; and for such a man no liturgical or memorial services ought to be held, since he murdered himself deliberately. Therefore, the clergyman must evaluate with accuracy in order not to sin.1
Such are the rulings of the Sacred Canons. As everyone understands, there is no discussion whatsoever over the issue as to whether a suicide should have a funeral or not. It is assumed that they won't receive a funeral. This Canon reiterates what was accepted by the Church until that point, and notes the only possible economy that can be given to a suicide is that they can receive a funeral if they are "mad", and this is to be determined after a thorough examination of each case.
As is known to those who have an ecclesiastical consciousness and do not see the Church in a "magical" way, that is, only as a ceremonial institution that does weddings, funerals, baptisms and other "social" events, the Sacred Canons are eternal laws that govern the Church. These laws have such a love for mankind, that it is incomprehensible nowadays.
Today there are many words about love and little actual love. True piety has become pietism, and the role of the priest is limited to caressing human passions instead of the aim of treating passions.
By banning a religious funeral the Holy Fathers, full of love for mankind, ensure the following key matters:
A. They shout out to all Christians with a blatant voice that whoever kills himself blasphemes the Holy Spirit and does not receive the remission of sins. In this way they are mentally supporting someone who is suicidal in a wise, clear and unambiguous manner to repel any such thought, even in cases of serious human difficulties.
Have the supposed "philanthropists" of today never contemplated that they justify suicides with intense emotional arguments, becoming unintentional instigators of many future suicides?
B. There is another, more spiritual reason why there should be no funeral service for a suicide. The social contempt for the suicide is a silent prayer to God to have mercy on them. Every humiliation of man before God increases Divine Mercy. Even posthumous humiliations help the soul in its account before God. This is shown in numerous instances in the life of the Church.2
We read in The Ladder of Saint John Klimacos, a book that has permeated throughout the centuries in all of Orthodoxy, that in the chapter "On Repentance" (Step Five) the monks whom the author knew and had reached a virtual angelic state, humbly asked that after their death "they would not even receive a memorial stone for them",3 but they requested their bodies be tossed without any postmortem honors. Saint Ephraim the Syrian asked that he not be buried with honors, and that they not light candles or incense for him, etc, so that God would take pity on him.
In the Euchologian, which every priest today uses, there are the prayers for the parting of the soul. These are heartbreaking cries of holy ascetics who pray for their body to be despised in order for their soul to find mercy from God. What do they say? "Do not allow my body to be buried in the earth, but leave it unburied, so that dogs can eat my heart."4 It is asked that the body of the sinner remain unburied for God to take pity on him. Therefore, it is by philanthropy that the Church does not give a funeral to suicides.
A blessed Athonite elder, Fr. Anthimos Agiannanites, when asked by relatives about a young suicide, if he should be commemorated during the Divine Liturgy (of course a funeral service was out of the question), responded: "Do not commemorate him during the Liturgy. It is better for his soul. When the All-Merciful sees that we do not honor him, the Same will take pity on him, but when we honor him, He will not have mercy on him."5
This is how our fathers respond to the postmortem false love of today.
For this dead person to not be read over, as we have seen, is the greatest compassion we can offer him. Otherwise, the prayers of the Church prevent Divine Mercy because they are false, self-righteous, hypocritical, and abusive towards God. How can we allow people who have abandoned the Christian faith or Orthodox truth or denied the divine gift of life to be chanted over in Christian churches with words such as "for the repose of the soul of the departed servant of God", "You are the resurrection...of the departed servant of Christ."
How can we on account of the deceased be kidding ourselves within the church, saying: "My soul longs with endless longing for Your judgments at all times" and "Despair took hold on me because of sinners that forsake Your Law" if he himself led an apostasy before God. How can we say on account of the deceased: "Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding, and I will learn Your commandments." How can the Church falsely celebrate by chanting: "Blessed is the way wherein you walk today, for there is prepared for you a place of rest."
. Προδρόμου Ι. Ακανθόπουλου, Κώδικας Ιερών Κανόνων και Εκκλησιαστικών Νόμων, β΄ έκδοση, Θεσσαλονίκη, ΑΦΟΙ Κυριακίδη, 1995, σελ. 605.
. In the Gerontikon there is a characteristic example of a couple in which the husband was humbly buried and went to Paradise, but his wife who was unrepentant, despite her pompous funeral that took places with many Bishops, Priests and laypeople, went to Hell. Γεροντικό, έκδοση ζ΄, Θεσσαλονίκη, Λυδία, 1989, σελ.166-172.
. Αγίου Ιωάννου Σιναΐτου, Κλίμαξ, μετάφρ. Αρχιμ. Ιγνατίου, έκδοση ε΄, Ωρωπός Αττικής, εκδ. Ι. Μ. Παρακλήτου, 1991, σελ. 127
. Μικρόν Ευχολόγιον, έκδοσις Αποστολικής Διακονίας της Εκκλησίας της Ελλάδος, έκδοση 11η. 1992, σελ. 223.
. Πρεσβυτέρου Θεμιστοκλέους Χριστοδούλου, Τα ιερά Μνημόσυνα, Αθήνα, εκδόσεις Ομολογία, 2002, σελ. 215.
Source: Αυτοκτονία και Ιερατική συνείδηση (Suicide and Priestly Conscience), Athens 2007. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.