Letter: Reflections from England – on the subject of suicide

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week in the US, and the subject is also to the fore in the Cayman Islands. As a result of a submission by the Alex Panton Foundation, the Cayman Islands Law Reform Commission recommends that suicide should no longer be considered a crime in the Cayman Islands.

Suicide was not decriminalised in England until 1961, long after most of our European counterparts. But it took a long struggle.

From the earliest days of the first century AD, suicide – Latin for ‘self murder’ – was thought by the Church to be a crime against God himself.

Alexander Pope published one of his best loved works in 1717 – ‘Elegy to an Unfortunate Lady’ – to object to the Church’s hard line following the suicide of a lady thwarted in love.

But following the example set by the Church, suicide was criminalised in England in the thirteenth century. Back then, a distinction was made between those who knew what they were doing, and those who were considered ‘of unsound mind’.

As Lord Byron, romantic poet (1788‑1824), put it: “In his death, he was necessarily one of two things by the law: a felon or a madman …”

For the ‘felons’, repercussions were harsh. Those who tried and failed to take their own lives were often slung in prison. And if they died, the monarchy seized the deceased’s assets and dragged the body to the nearest crossroads where it was ‘buried’.

Burial at the crossroads – a fate also reserved for highwaymen, common murderers and witches – was no ordinary burial. Corpses were often laid face down, lying North to South so that they would be unable to see the second coming of the Lord in the East.

A stake was driven through the heart, ensuring that the soul would be incapacitated. But if it ever did manage to free itself from the grave, it would be confused as to which path to take in order to wreak its revenge.

Alexander Pope railed against the unforgiving mentality.

“So perish all, whose breast ne’er learn’d to glow
For others’ good, or melt at others’ woe.”

It took another 100 or so years for attitudes to begin to soften. The catalyst for change came in June 1823 when King George IV’s carriage was delayed at the London crossroads burial of 22‑year-old Abel Griffiths. Abel had been declared sane in court – meaning his assets could be seized – despite evidence having been produced to the contrary.

Due to the public outcry, that day is said to have marked the end of the practice of staking the heart. It also gave rise to The Burial of Suicides Act 1823; bodies of those who had taken their own lives were now permitted to be buried in consecrated ground.

But not until 2017 did the Church of England officially amend Church Law to allow such burials to be conducted using the standard service set out in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

The Alex Panton Foundation cites a survey that finds one third of Caymanian children report suicidal ideation, (similar to the numbers in England), yet only 5% seek treatment in Cayman compared to 25% in England.

Chairperson of the Alex Panton Foundation, Jane Panton, stated that “decriminalising of suicide will go a long way in helping to remove the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, which is one of the main barriers to persons accessing the care they need. Invalidating this archaic law is a big step towards helping Cayman society recognise that mental illness is a treatable illness like any physical illness”.

Dr. Marc Lockhart, chairman of the Mental Health Commission, wrote to the Law Reform Commission in support, saying: “This change is welcomed by our Commission and is supported by mental health practitioners in the community. Our focus is on prevention, education and treatment, while removing any and all blocks to accessing care. Our efforts are also focused on augmenting resources for care, including the finalisation of a dedicated humane therapeutic facility for the treatment of such maladies.”

The proposed dedicated facility in Cayman – and the proposed £2 billion per annum extra funding for mental health services in the UK that was announced last year – all point to a welcome changing of the times.

Jenny Vanbergen