Now another bad news day for Catholic priests: a priest in Michigan is being criticized for his handling of the funeral of a young man who took his own life.

The story is here.

The parents are upset that the priest mentioned suicide at the funeral and did not use the funeral to celebrate the boy’s life.

Tough one.

What does the church teach about suicide and what is a funeral for?

It used to be that suicide was a mortal sin. No questions asked. The person who took their own life was denied a Catholic funeral and could not be buried in consecrated ground. Why was it considered a sin? Because the person despaired of hope in God so much that they took the ultimate step of taking life into their own hands. They took violated the sacredness of all human life in the most terrible way.

With a better understanding of depression and mental illness the church has adjusted her understanding. The Catechism has this to say:

 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

In other words, suicide is a serious sin, but there remains hope for the person who takes their own life. This should be the message at a funeral for one who commits suicide. The grieving family does not need to be told how evil suicide is. They are feeling that to the very depth of their being. Without compromising the truth they need a scrap of hope to hold on to. They need to be given a glimpse of mercy.

The funeral service itself is a service of prayer or a Mass for the repose of the soul of the departed person–no matter what the cause of that person’s death, but in being such it is also a source of comfort and closure for the bereaved family. Eulogies and celebrations of the person’s life should normally take place at the funeral home sometime before the funeral service in church. If there is a eulogy at the funeral it should usually take place before the actual liturgy begins. The homily should be about the Lord’s saving work, his resurrection and his compassion on the living and the dying. It should also be an occasion for comfort and hope for the bereaved.

I don’t know the whole story in this particular case, so I can’t judge one way or the other, but there is something else that should be remembered when dealing with Catholic funerals.

If we really do not make a judgement about the state of the person’s soul, and we do not say “They are going to hell” then neither is it wise or fair to assume that they are going to heaven. What happens all too often in our confused day and age is that we all say, “George is in a better place now” or “Aunt Sally is with her beloved Frank in heaven.”

This is a sentimental conclusion which may not be based in reality. We hope that person is headed toward heaven, but we don’t know. Therefore a funeral homily should at best, be open ended about the state of the person’s soul. We should say something like, “We commend this person into the Lord’s love and care.” or “Let us pray for the eternal rest of this person.”

We should also remember the reality of purgatory and the efficacy of offering masses for the repose of the souls of our loved ones. This too is a great source of ongoing hope and help for the bereaved as well as offering supernatural assistance for the dead.

There is another reason why we should not say the person “is better off now” or “he is in a better place”. If we suggest that a person who commits suicide goes straight to heaven–not only is it not true, but we may be encouraging others to take the same short cut.

While we offer all support and compassion to those who are mentally ill and to the families of those who take their own lives, we must also continue to treat suicide as a terrible and tragic violation of the sacredness of all human life. Suicide in different forms is sky rocketing in the USA and we must all face death by suicide with seriousness and compassion while also avoiding the natural temptation to a sentimentality which might encourage more people to follow such a tragic example.