Grave Consequences: The societal rationale behind the medicalisation and secularisation of suicide as reflected in the burial of those who died by suicide in Ireland and England in the 19th century.

by Lauren Rooney.

Lauren Rooney is a recent Business and Law graduate of UCD. In this article, she examines the societal rationale behind the medicalisation and secularisation of suicide in the UK and Ireland in the 18th and 19th century. She discusses how the finding of insanity and subsequent legislative change sought to protect those who died by suicide.

From 1800 to 1900, societal attitudes towards those who died by suicide were in somewhat of a flux. The transition from ‘self-murderer’ to ‘social disease’ in society’s perception of those who died by suicide is aptly reflected in the evolution of the treatment of these individuals’ bodies in their burial.[1] This essay will explore whether the exonerating finding of insanity as a cause of suicide was a legitimate medical finding or an attempt by coroner’s courts to exploit a legal loophole, and subsequent to legislative change, protect the reputation of those who committed the act and evade ecclesiastical authority. 

The act of suicide was declared a felony in England from as early as the 13th century.[2] Through this felo de se, or felony upon themselves, perpetrators were viewed as having committed a double offence; a spiritual offence in invading the prerogative of God and a temporal offence against the king, by interfering with the preservation of his subjects.[3]Furthermore, an 18th century school of thought viewed suicide as evidence of homicidal tendencies, and as a direct reflection of a need to commit homicide,[4] which further entrenched the perceived need for its criminalisation. 

Those who committed the act and were deemed felo de se could not be buried on consecrated ground and were denied the posthumous dignity of a Christian burial.[5] It was customary that their bodies would instead be buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through their heart, as it was believed that the souls of those who committed the act were restless and malevolent, and thus the bodies ought to be buried away from the community to protect them from these malevolent spirits.[6] As suicide was a felony, it was ruled in Hales v Petit [7] that the deceased’s assets should be confiscated by the crown, which added further insult to the already disgraced family of the ‘perpetrator’.[8]

The rationale for the ignominious treatment of the bodies of persons deemed felo de se who died by suicide prior to the 1823 Burial of Suicide Act was quite simple; the belief that the thought of the shameful burial and undignified treatment of their body after the act would be effective in deterring a man from committing such an action.[9] In reality, however, religious condemnation of the act, as completely abhorrent with nature and the laws of God, also greatly influenced the use of stringent legal penalties against it.[10]

However, there existed an exception to this rule. Those individuals who were found to be non compos mentis, or insane, at the time they committed suicide were deemed not-guilty of the crime, and thus afforded some form of a Christian burial after the 1880’s, with their assets remaining in the hands of their family.[11] The determination that an individual be either felo de se and guilty or non compos mentis and not guilty, fell to the decision of the coroner through the coroner’s court.  Suicide was a felony at this time requiring the forfeiture of goods, meaning that the coroner became involved to seize the ‘criminal’ assets the perpetrator left behind.[12]

Legislative changes greatly diminished the relevance of the insanity verdict, as in 1832, the Burial of Suicide act forbade the practice of burying those who had committed suicide at a crossroads with a stake through their heart.[13] Those who died by suicide were buried at this time between the hours of nine and twelve at night, without any religious service.[14]The Forfeiture Act of 1870 [15] indicated that the Crown could no longer confiscate the assets of someone who had died by suicide,[16] and this took effect in 1872. Further acts in 1880 [17] and the Internments (felo de se) Act, 1882[18]permitted those who were found felo de se to be buried in consecrated ground, during the day, without police surveillance, with any prayers permitted by the relevant religious institutions.[19]

Despite these numerous legislative changes mitigating the harsh treatment of those who committed suicide and were deemed competent, findings of insanity by coroner’s courts were still commonplace. A study in 1860 by De Boismont detailed that insanity was the cause of one-sixth of 4,077 suicide cases examined, and mental emotions accounted for another quarter.[20] It has been suggested that the increasing practice of allowing expert medical witnesses at trials during the early 19th century helped to establish the perception of suicide as a natural result of insanity, and this accounted for the continuance of these findings, regardless of the softening legal position. 

In actual fact, it seems that the link between insanity and suicide was constructed and retained by juries, who knowingly perpetuated the mistruth that every case of suicide was a result of insanity, initially to protect the reputation and property of the dead,[21] and after the changes in legislative position in 1832 and in the 1880’s, to evade ecclesiastical authority.[22]

This latter point is pertinent as although burial on consecrated ground with relevant prayers  was permitted in law in 1882, the Catholic church did not formally state that all those who died by suicide were presumed to be ‘temporarily insane’ and therefore deserving of a Christian burial until 1908.[23] During this period, suicides were buried in un-consecrated ground, along with excommunicates, unbaptised babies and executed criminals. This satisfied the lingering religious opposition to the legitimation of suicide post-1832.[24]

Newspaper reports of suicide demonstrate the incredulousness of this verdict in some cases. In 1875, Cornelius Osbourne had fallen on hard times and his brother refused to continue to support him. He threw himself into the Thames, leaving behind the most eloquent note which specifically read ‘I am in my full senses, so therefore the coroner and the jury need not return a verdict of insanity.’[25] And yet the jury did just that, displaying the now conventional position of a temporary insanity verdict in cases of suicide. 

Doctors testifying at these trials therefore were required to change their line in order to appease the coroner’s court and assimilate with the assumption that those who died by suicide were temporarily insane. They generally sought a link with physical pathology as a cause for insanity, rather than purely psychological anomalies, as they wished to avoid the taint associated with mental illness and the stigma it could have on the already suffering family left behind, which may affect their vital future marriageability prospects.[26]

Furthermore, it was popular belief even in progressive psychological circles at this time that suicide could not result from mental anguish alone.[27] This may be a reflection of continued strong religious influence on the attitude towards those who died by suicide, which described suicides that were in those of a ‘melancholy disposition which Satan never fails to improve.’[28] This further linked those who committed suicide due to ‘a depressed mind’ alone with Satanic influence and shame, adding further impetus for medical professionals testifying in coroner’s courts to come up with a physical explanation for the deceased’s temporary insanity.

To understand why these Coroner’s courts were sympathetic to those who died by suicide, we only need look to their composition and operation. In his inquest, the Coroner would establish a jury of 12 to 15 men,[29] usually neighbours of the deceased selected from their village and local community.[30] In 1836, legislation made provision for medical experts to appear at these inquests, but in practice doctors played a relatively minor role, and much of the evidence obtained as to the person’s sanity was from their friends and family.[31] It is unsurprising, therefore, that these individuals who were in close proximity to the deceased were both sympathetic and eager to shift blame for the deceased’s death  on an explanation of temporary insanity, rather than on their own actions.

The vivid recital of coroner court rulings on suicides in the newspaper press in the late 19th century evoked sympathy and pity in the minds of large masses of the population,[32] and this was another contributing factor in the prevalence of these insanity verdicts. The vogue of female suicide in literature and an increasing public appetite for the ‘fallen woman’ lured to her death also had significant impact,[33] and in reports there was often a detailed description of the salacious events that had led up to the act.[34] One report of ‘the unfortunate lady who recently poisoned herself,’ focused on the lady Miss Nicholson’s actions leading up to her suicide, particularly that of her sleeping with a Mr H outside marriage.[35]

However, it would be simplistic to assume that such coverage was always sympathetic. The application of the new secular approach to suicide was conditional, with those who deviated too far from their social norms – what was expected of them based on their gender, class or common morality – being subjected to moralistic judgement, and more readily ruled to be felo de se.[36] Strahan’s contemporary paper on the motivations behind suicide boldly states that the bulk of suicides that are committed in order to ‘finish a longer or shorter career of crime, or immorality, or both.’[37] Despite much progression towards a secular attitude to suicide, the idea of moral degeneracy still permeated thinking by the 19thcentury,[38] and this may account for the continuance of some felo de se verdicts. The ultimate example of this is presented in the gruesome burial of the famous murderer who had committed suicide, John Williams, who was buried in the customary felo de se manner in front of a large crowd as macabre entertainment.[39] This societal deviant had strayed too far from his social norms through his serious crimes, and thus was not afforded the sympathetic assumption of temporary insanity. 

The verdict of temporary insanity was heavily criticised as farcical by both the medical and legal profession alike, with Dr Strahan noting that it was impossible that 98% of successful suicides were ruled temporarily insane, while only 4% of attempts at suicide were deemed to be so.[40] Medical professionals recognised that it was ‘weak sentimentality’ that led to these insanity verdicts, and such verdicts were not exposed to the same criteria which governed the question of criminal responsibility in other cases.[41] In every court other than the coroner’s, the standards of proof for mental disability were stringent and clear.[42] English lawyers condemned this automatic assumption, and recognised that juries often confused ‘strong passions’ for insanity in order to evade the material and later, religious and reputational consequences of constructive murder.[43]

The popularity of temporary insanity verdicts as an explanation for the act also had the effect of reducing numbers of suicides and attempted suicides reported to police post 1860, as there developed a tendency to direct attempted suicides directly to mental asylums.[44] This displays that although the insanity verdicts of the coroner’s courts generally did not occur due to an accurate medical recognition of madness as a cause, a growing, and perhaps unintended convention developed that a medical, rather than a punitive approach, was required to prevent suicide occurring. 

This change in attitudes towards suicide, away from a punitive position and towards a medical one, may seem like humanitarian enlightenment and there is no doubt that philosophical humanitarian approaches had their part to play. The evolution of attitudes however, was for more practical reasons, namely the preservation of property and reputation in the latter half of the century. [45]

Despite this, there were those such as David Hume, at the more radical and free-thinking end of the spectrum who advocated for decriminalisation and defended suicide. Hume took a view which focused on self-autonomy, and while still vowing to eradicate suicide, stated that withdrawing from society does no harm and only ceases to do good, the ‘lowest form of crime of all.’[46] It is unsurprising that this most radical attitude towards those who died by suicide is most like our liberal and secular understanding of suicide today.

[1] Georgina Laragy, ‘“A Peculiar Species of Felony”: Suicide, Medicine, and the Law in Victorian Britain and Ireland’ (2013) 46 Journal of Social History 732, 733.

[2] Eleanor Fitzsimons, ‘Deadly Sensationalism’ (2013) 21 History Ireland 32, 32.

[3] Friend to mankind, ‘A Caveat against Suicide; Wherein the Heinious Sin of that Unnatural Crime is Clearly Pointed out. With Some Proper Hints for Preventing It.’ (William Smith 1786) 9, Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

[4] Corey B Bills, ‘The Relationship between Homicide and Suicide: A Narrative and Conceptual Review of Violent Death’ (2017) 11 IJCV a400, 3.

[5] Fitzsimons (n 2).

[6] Michael MacDonald, ‘The Secularization of Suicide in England 1660-1800’ [1986] Past & Present 50, 54.

[7] Hales v Petit [1562]

[8] J Neeleman, ‘Suicide as a Crime in the UK: Legal History, International Comparisons and Present Implications’ (1996) 94 Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 252, 253.

[9] Charles Moore, A Full Inquiry into the Subject of Suicide. To Which Are Added (as Being Closely Connected with the Subject) Two Treatises on Duelling and Gaming, vol 1 (J F and C Rivington, No 62, St Paul’s Church-Yard; J Robson and W Clarke, New-Bond-Street; G Nicol, Pall-Mall; and J and T Egerton, Charing-Cross; Fletcher, Prince and Cooke, Oxford; Merrills, Lunn, Cambridge; Simmons and Kirby, Canterbury; and Gillman, Rochester MDCCXC Entered at Stationers-Hall 1790) 320, Eighteenth Century Collections Online; Friend to mankind (n 3) 17.

[10] ibid 12.

[11] Laragy (n 1) 739.

[12] Neeleman (n 8) 253.

[13] Burial of Suicide Act 1823.

[14] ‘An Act to Alter and Amend the Law Relating to the Internment of the Remains of Any Person Found Felo de Se’ in Statutes Revised (Londond:Eyre and Spottiswood 1877) vol .5:52 George III to 4 George IV, 928.

[15] Forfeiture Act 1870.

[16] Neeleman (n 8) 253.

[17] Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880, s13.

[18] Internments (felo de se) Act 1882.

[19] Laragy (n 1) 735.

[20] JN Radcliffe, ‘English Suicide-Fields, and the Restraint of Suicide’ (1862) 2 Med Crit Psychol J 701, 704.

[21] RA Houston, ‘Explanations for Death by Suicide in Northern Britain during the Long Eighteenth Century’: [2012] History of Psychiatry, 54, Sage UK: London, England.

[22] Georgina Laragy, ‘Suicide and Insanity in Post Famine Ireland’ in Cultures of Care in Irish Medical History, 1750-1970 (Palgrave Macmillan UK 2010) 84.

[23] ‘Notes and Queries’ in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record (XXIII, Dublin : Browne and Nolan [etc] 1908) vol 23, 99.

[24] MacDonald (n 6) 88.

[25] ‘Extraordinary Suicide’, Reynolds’s Newspaper (3 January 1875) British Library Newspapers <; accessed 20th April 2021.

[26] Houston (n 22) 55.

[27] George Man Burrows, ‘Commentaries on the Causes Forms, Symptoms, and Treatment of Insanity’ (1828) 10 Med Chir Rev 1, 4.

[28] Friend to mankind (n 3) 13.

[29] Laragy (n 23) 81.

[30] MacDonald (n 6) 65.

[31] Laragy (n 1) 735.

[32] Radcliffe (n 21) 707.

[33] Fitzsimons (n 2) 34.

[34] Fitzsimons (n 2).

[35] ‘The Following is a Short Account of the Unfortunate Young Lady, Who Lately Poisoned Herself’, The Times (4 November 1786) The Times Digital Archive.

[36] Ian Miller, ‘Representations of Suicide in Urban North-West England c.1870-1910: The Formative Role of Respectability, Class, Gender and Morality’ (2010) 15 Mortality 191; Moore (n 9) 76.

[37] SAK Strahan, ‘Suicide and Insanity: A Physiological and Sociological Study’ (1894) 40 Journal of Mental Science 433, 433.

[38] Strahan (n 39) 436.

[39] MacDonald (n 6) 93.

[40] Strahan (n 39) 436.

[41] Anonymous, ‘The Prevention of Suicide’ [1894] Journal of Mental Science 64.

[42] Houston (n 22) 56.

[43] William Nelson, The Office and Authority of a Justice of Peace (3rd edn, London: J Nutt 1710); R Henslowe Wellington, ‘The Verdict of “Suicide Whilst Temporarily Insane.”: A Legal Contradiction’ (1933) 1 Medicao-Legal and Criminological Review 78.

[44] Mark Finnane, ‘A Decline in Violence in Ireland? Crime, Policing and Social Relations, 1860-1914’ (1997) 1 Crime, History & Societies 51, 56.

[45] MacDonald (n 6) 83.

[46] David Hume, Essays On Suicide And The Immortality Of The Soul (James Fieser ed, Infomotions, Inc 1783) 9.

%d bloggers like this: