People who come to Exit workshops are well aware of the importance of making that ultimate of decisions, the decision to die. They are all acutely aware of the need to get it right. In this Chapter, we examine the phenomenon of suicide in the context of the modern life course, and why access to the best in end of life information is so important.
A Brief History of Suicide
Over the years, the way in which society views the taking of one’s own life has varied enormously. Suicide has not always been seen as the act of a sick and depressed person. In ancient Greece, Athenian magistrates kept a supply of poison for anyone who wanted to die. You just needed official permission. For the Stoics of ancient times, suicide was considered an appropriate response, if the problems of pain, grave illness or physical abnormalities became too great.
With the rise of Christianity, however, suicide came to be viewed as a sin (a violation of the sixth commandment). As Lisa Lieberman writes in her book Leaving You, all of a sudden ‘the Roman ideal of heroic individualism’ was replaced ‘with a platonic concept of submission to divine authority’.
It was Christianity that changed society’s view of suicide from the act of a responsible person, to an infringement upon the rights of God. One’s death became a matter of God’s will, not one’s own and it was at this point that penalties were first established for those who attempted suicide. If the suicide was successful, it was the family of the offender who were punished with fines and social disgrace.