Suicide is always a very difficult reality. Families and community in the wake of loss must deal with shock, questions, and often guilt. Last week the entire nation paused in shock as we learned of two celebrities for whom suicide is a reality. For religious communities, the issue is often more complicated than nonreligious communities based on interpretations of sacred texts. Depending on the eschatology of a particular community the grief and loss can be compounded by thoughts of eternal torture. For the liturgist, we must wrestle with questions about the funeral or memorial of all members of the community, but there are occasions such as suicide where this wrestling can be more sensitive than others. Suicide shakes communities because it is a human phenomenon and each human at their core recognizes the nearness of their own mortality when confronted with the reality that one can terminate one’s own life. The truth is, nothing human is foreign to us because we carry within ourselves all of humanity; that, in spite of the fact that that there are no two individuals the same, the paradox exists that we all share common substance. Nothing that exist in any human being does not exist within myself (Fromm 2005). Collectively, we seek to escape the truth that life as we know it ends. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last time (Baldwin 1993). Much of what is alarming for communities is related to our need for emotional safety and stability.
In my experience as a Pastor and Bishop, all religious practice seeks to provide a way for communities to name their experience and to live in response to it (Allen 2008). Funerals and memorials are no different. They are rituals which try to make sense of our existence that we share with our community; they also answer our need to express devotion to dominant values (Fromm, Psychoanalysis & Religion 1950). This is where they can get difficult to navigate; what particular common values should be lifted in this moment of corporate crisis? It is the task of the liturgist to determine the dominant theme and overall tone of this final ceremony that recognizes the life of the individual and that life’s impact on the collective. Death is one certainty in every life, the one inevitable event. But every death is unique and has different impact on individuals, families, and communities. We must never pretend that it is unimportant or underestimate the effects of how a person dies on those who remain, but we must also remember that death no matter how it comes, is common to us all (Chapman 1999). With that in mind the liturgy must bare all the dignity and respect human transition deserves and hold special care for those who mourn in this particular way.
While the skillful liturgist must be aware of and attentive to communal values, the funeral or memorial is no time to flesh out doctrinal and theological debates. The texts chosen should be ones which offer comfort and support to those grieving and the eulogist should craft an oration that focuses the community on those things which are common to the shared human experience. Central to the service should be the love and the care of those dealing with grief and loss. Never should these moments be taken to invoke fear, for that would be the most egregious form emotional abuse and spiritual manipulation. There is a way to lift up the values of the community and even its theological claims without victimizing those already traumatized by grief and loss. To do otherwise is to operate with unmitigated arrogance and cruelty.
The responsible liturgist must ask themselves the point and purpose of funeral. What are my ethical duties to the community? Is this liturgy socially responsible? Have we with dignity responded to this liturgical opportunity? Who will benefit for our community experience today?
There are many more questions to wrestle through as one prepares the liturgy for this occasion. Feel free to comment below your thoughts and experiences.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide please know that there is help for you. Please call 1-800-273-8255
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Allen, Ronald J. 2008. Thinking Theologically: The Preacher as Theologian. Minneapolis: Frotress Press.
Baldwin, James. 1993. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International .
Chapman, Raymond. 1999. A Pastoral Prayer Book: Occasional Prayers for times of Change, Concern, and Cekebration. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing.
Fromm, Erich. 2005. On Being Human. New York: Continuum .
—. 1950. Psychoanalysis & Religion. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.