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Silence at Suicide

Is This Prayer Illegal?

Silence at Suicide

A lot of articles have recently been discussing the New Zealand law concerning publicly talking about a person’s suicide. The law is that, until the Coroner has ruled that it was a suicide, people cannot talk publicly about this.

Most people will be very aware of the understanding not to encourage “copycat suicides“.

Many will also aware of the strictures previously around someone who has died by suicide in many Christian traditions. Thankfully, those strictures have changed. In NZ Anglicanism, not only would a Christian funeral be offered, but the formal Prayer Book has a specific prayer:

Compassionate God,
we ask you to receive N,
who has died by her/his own hand.
Grant that the knowledge of your love and mercy
may comfort those who grieve for her/him,
strengthen our assurance of your redeeming purpose
for all your children,
through Jesus Christ your Son.
(NZPB/HKMA page 857)

It appears, however, that this prayer, and pastorally-sensitive addressing this particular person’s suicide at the funeral, is illegal.

My practice would be to acknowledge the suicide (with the understanding of the family) especially if it was common knowledge, highlighting that the person is loved by God, that each of us are so loved, and in acknowledging the depth of darkness for the person who has died, stressing that if any of us ever, in such darkness, considered this to realise the love that God and others have for us, the support that is there, and how we feel at the loss of this person…

We need to pastorally address any sense of responsibility for the death.

Sometimes, at a funeral, a central element that we are all aware of, is not mentioned, and it may feel like we are present at another person’s funeral. Not mentioning the suicide of the person can be like that.

The standard NZ Anglican work on (pakeha) funerals, Earthed in Hope, has a full chapter on suicide and echoes my approach:

It is necessary to expand [the introductory statement] to openly name the death as suicide with honesty and compassion. (page 248)

I realise the sensitivity of what I have raised, and hope I have raised it as best I can. From the current outpouring of artices, it does appear that the law makes praying the above prayer and following my pastoral practice illegal.

The image for this post is the one regularly being used in the media on this discussion.

Other recent articles not in the above links:
Suicide and mental health: NZ’s quiet crisis
The 10 lessons I learned after my young son killed himself
Grieving mum speaks out about son’s apparent suicide
New Zealand needs to talk about suicide, bereaved dad says
The silent treatment: How one mum has been stopped from talking about suicide
‘Taboo-ness’ around suicide in New Zealand needs to end – bereaved mum

The NZ approach may mean we terribly underestimate the issue here. An expert has warned that as many as 33 people are die by suicide each week.


  • The Mental Health Foundation’s free resource and information service (09 623 4812) will refer callers to some of the helplines below:
  • Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354
  • Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757
  • Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116
  • Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
  • Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz
  • 0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
  • Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
  • Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
  • Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

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15 thoughts on “Is This Prayer Illegal?”

  1. The Ven. David Stickley

    My liturgical instinct is that this prayer, while lovely, is wholly unnecessary. It’s a little like using last names during the intercessions. God knows the person in question and the need. Our role is simply to pray. That the person has gone on to the life to come is the important part; not how.

  2. Andrew Doohan

    This is indeed a very unfortunate set of circumstances.

    Surely the task of liturgy is to give voice to the reality of life, however tragic the circumstances of life might be, and place that in the hands of a loving God.

    Thankfully here in Australia we don’t have the restrictions in naming suicide for what it is. A pastorally sensitive naming of the circumstances of death can indeed be a moment of graced healing for the family and friends of one who has chosen the timing of their own death.

    One can only hope that common sense might prevail.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. Yes – one certainly hopes common sense prevails here – and, as you may have seen in the linked articles, that this is expressed in revision of the law. Blessings.

  3. also, I am not sure that a funeral is a public event (in legal terms). Even though it may have been advertised in the paper, entry not necessarily open to everyone and it is (usually) taking place in a private venue.
    And I would expect many families would want a private event that is not listed in the paper in these circumstances.

  4. Tangential but possibly a helpful addition – family members and friends of those who die by suicide have advocated that we move away from the construction ‘committed suicide’. It comes from the time when suicide was considered a crime and/or sin – the two things we use that same construction for – i.e. we still say ‘commit crime’ and ‘commit sin’ and ‘commit adultery’. I’ve written about it here: https://exilicchaplain.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/how-we-talk-about-suicide/

    1. Thanks so much, Jemma. I went back and skimmed the chapter in Earthed in Hope that I mention in my post. I cannot see the “commit” construct in a quick scan. Rev. Alister Hendery (the author) uses suicide as a verb. Blessings.

        1. Yes, Jemma. My reply to you was to indicate that Alister seemed to be cognisant of your point. I haven’t had time to reread the whole chapter to see whether he makes your point explicit (he or you may like to comment). I left my post (which was essentially mirroring the language used in the articles I am reflecting on) in acknowledgement of the significance of your point for which I thanked you, rather than giving the impression that what you said is common practice anyway. However, since that appears not to have come through, I have now changed the original post. Blessings.

          1. No apology needed at all, Jemma. I appreciate your point a lot. I have also contacted Alister in case he has missed this discussion. Online communication can struggle for clarity (as can Real Life communication 😉 ). One of the cool things about the community around this site is that we can communicate with more light than heat than so many other (Christian) sites I visit. Blessings.

          2. Alister Hendery

            I have made this point in ‘Earthed in Hope’. To quote: The phrase ‘committed suicide’ is associated with a crime or sin, like ‘committing robbery ‘ or ‘committed a great sin’. That term can be very painful for survivors and it is less distressing to hear ‘suicided’, ‘died by suicide’, ‘to suicide’, ‘took his life’, ‘ended her life’ or other phrases which do not use the word ‘commit’. I cite death scholar, Ruth McManus, who also avoids the word commit because it is not a formal crime. As she says suicide has never been a crime under NZ law and ceased to be under British law in 1961

          3. Thanks, Alister. What do you make of this recent plethora of articles around the NZ Coroner’s Act 2006 that we cannot publicly talk about someone’s suicide until the Coroner has ruled that it was a suicide? Blessings.

  5. I assume that the coroner gave permission for the funeral to take place after opening but before the conclusion of the inquest. I believe that this is usual practice in the UK provided that there is no question of unlawful killing; I do not know how coroners here respond if there is the possibility of an open verdict. Whilst, on the one hand, it can be pastorally helpful to move ahead with the funeral, in the absence of the coroner’s finding, could ministers and family at worst could find themselves in contempt of court for saying what is believed, though I believe there is a ‘good faith’ defence?

    The pastoral extension of this would be the appropriate liturgical response if assisted suicide were to become lawful.

  6. Allan E Hagen

    My wife killed herself 4 years ago. She was given a traditional service from the Canadian Anglican Church we attended. Cause of death was not hidden from our friends and family and was mentioned in the Eulogy and by the Priest. The obituary also mentioned “Joan battled depression for many years; at her end the depression won”. To hide how she died would be an insult to her memory. The prayer you mention was not used but would have been very appropriate.

    1. I, and I am sure readers in the community around this site, Allan, appreciate your speaking from your own so-close experience. Be assured of my own and, I am sure, others’ thoughts and prayers. Depression is only slowly becoming talked about more, here. Far more people battle depression than is often realised. We need to work harder around the stigmas associated with this also. Blessings.

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