|ROME, 15 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: What is the current stand of the Church regarding the possibility of
funeral Masses "in corpore presente" of persons who are said to have
committed suicide? Is it true that there already are mitigating
circumstances, like the possibility of irrationality at the moment of
taking one's life (even if there was no note), whereby it would be
possible to suppose that the person was not in his right mind, and that
therefore it is licit to let the funeral entourage to enter a church and
a funeral Mass be said?
E.C.M., Manila, Philippines
A: In earlier times a person who committed suicide would often be denied
funeral rites and even burial in a Church cemetery. However, some
consideration has always been taken into account of the person's mental
state at the time.
In one famous case, when Rudolph, the heir to the throne of the
Austrian-Hungarian Empire, committed suicide in 1889, the medical
bulletin declared evidence of "mental aberrations" so that Pope Leo XIII
would grant a religious funeral and burial in the imperial crypt. Other
similar concessions were probably quietly made in less sonorous cases.
Canon law no longer specifically mentions suicide as an impediment to
funeral rites or religious sepulture.
Canon 1184 mentions only three cases: a notorious apostate, heretic or
schismatic; those who requested cremation for motives contrary to the
Christian faith; and manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral cannot be
granted without causing public scandal to the faithful. These
restrictions apply only if there has been no sign of repentance before
The local bishop weighs any doubtful cases and in practice a prudent
priest should always consult with the bishop before denying a funeral
A particular case of suicide might enter into the third case
that of a manifest and unrepentant sinner
especially if the suicide follows another grave crime such as murder.
In most cases, however, the progress made in the study of the underlying
causes of self-destruction shows that the vast majority are consequences
of an accumulation of psychological factors that impede making a free
and deliberative act of the will.
Thus the general tendency is to see this extreme gesture as almost
always resulting from the effects of an imbalanced mental state and, as
a consequence, it is no longer forbidden to hold a funeral rite for a
person who has committed this gesture although each case must still be
studied on its merits.
Finally, it makes little difference, from the viewpoint of liturgical
law, whether the body is present or not. If someone is denied a Church
funeral, this applies to all public ceremonies although it does not
impede the celebration of private Masses for the soul of the deceased.
The same principle applies to funeral Masses of those whose body is
unavailable for burial due to loss or destruction. Certainly the rites
are different when the body is present or absent, but the Church's
public intercession for the deceased is equally manifest in both cases.
* * *
Follow-up: Funeral Masses [11-29-2005]
A New Zealand reader asked for clarifications regarding our mention of
Canon 1184 that "those who requested cremation for motives contrary to
the Christian faith" were not to be given a Church funeral (see Nov.
She asks: "Can you please tell me what motives for cremation might be
considered contrary to Christian faith?"
The proviso in this canon is presumably rarely actually invoked. A
person would only incur such a prohibition if, before death, he or she
requested cremation explicitly and publicly motivated by a denial of
some aspect of Christian faith regarding life after death.
Among possible such motivations would be a lack of faith in the survival
of the immortal soul and thus requesting cremation to emphasize the
definitiveness of death. Another could be the denial of belief in the
resurrection of the dead.
More recently, some nominal Catholics who have dabbled in New Age
pantheism or believe in doctrines such as reincarnation or migration of
souls might request cremation in order to follow these esoteric
doctrines or the customs of some Eastern religions.
In all such cases the motivation for seeking cremation is contrary to
Catholic doctrine and, if this fact is publicly known, performing a
Church funeral could cause scandal or imply that holding to Church
doctrine is really not that important. ZE05112920