Denial of church burial for suicide victims sparks controversy
- THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India : A Catholic Oriental Church's decision to deny church burial to suicide victims has generated controversy in Kerala, southern India.
The Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church (SMC) came up with the ruling in August but it came to light only on Oct. 13 when a local newspaper reported on it.
This and subsequent media reports have prompted people to question the Church's decision.
According to SMC spokesperson Father Paul Thelakat, his Church has decided to deny burial only for those who have created a scandal through their suicidal acts. The priest also noted the Church's synod had taken the decision way back in 2003, but it was formally incorporated into its rules only in August.
The Church made the rule to stress its opposition to the sinful act of committing suicide, the priest said. According to him, the Church will neither allow the body of a "scandalous suicide victim" to enter the church building, nor will the priest be allowed to accompany the funeral procession with prayers.
The Church offers three types of funeral services. In the first, "ceremonial burial," several priests or a bishop celebrate a Mass as well as give a homily. The second, "simple burial," has no homily or Mass although a priest will accompany the funeral procession with prayers.
In the case of a suicide that has caused scandal, mourners can bring the body up to the church's main gate for prayers and then take it to cemetery without the priest accompanying them. The Church's new law allows the priest to bless the grave but he cannot lead the funeral service, Father Thelakat clarified.
"It doesn't mean that all suicides are scandalous. It's for the parish council and the priest together to decide on the merits of each case," he added.
The SMC, the larger of two Catholic Oriental rites in India, has some 4 million members in 26 dioceses in India and abroad.
The priest clarified the Church is sympathetic toward suicide victims, but cannot approve of "their act of sin." The Indian criminal law punishes suicide attempts with imprisonment, he noted.
Several people, including Catholics, criticized the Church decision as "insensitive."
Thomas Varghese, an SMC member, says the Church is "unsympathetic to the unfortunate" victims. "God taught us to love our enemies and not discriminate anyone. But we are setting up laws to discriminate people after death," he charged.
Joseph Pulikunnel, editor of "Osana," a monthly magazine for laypeople, dismissed the Church's decision as arbitrary. "How can a man judge on this matter?" he asked. "It's not fair on the part of the Church to discriminate against someone who commits suicide in his agony."
Other Churches in Kerala have different rules for burying suicide victims.
The Latin Church, the largest of the three Catholic rites in India, does not discriminate against suicide victims, according to Father Ronald M. Varghese of Punalur diocese.
The Syrian Orthodox Church amended its laws some years ago to offer "decent burial" to suicide victims, said Father T.J. Joshua, a senior priest of the Church. Earlier, the body was taken to the vault and the priest visited only the victim's home, without wearing his customary black overcoat.
Courtesy : UCAN