suicide note

Definitions of terms


[Lat.,=self-killing], the deliberate taking of one's own life. Suicide may be compulsory, prescribed by custom or enjoined by the authorities, usually as an alternative to death at the hands of others, or it may be committed for personal motives. Depending on the time and place, it may be regarded as a heroic deed or condemned by religious and civil authorities.

Compulsory suicide may be performed out of loyalty to a dead master or spouse. Examples of this are suttee in India and the similar behavior expected of the dead emperor's favorite courtiers in ancient China. Such practices, now largely extinct, undoubtedly derived from the ancient and widespread custom of immolating servants and wives on the grave of a chief or noble (see funeral customs).

Self-murder may also be enjoined for the welfare of the group; among primitive peoples, the elderly who could no longer contribute to their own subsistence are an example. Finally, suicide may be offered to a favored few as an alternative to execution, as among the feudal Japanese gentry (see hara-kiri), the Greeks (see Socrates), the Roman nobility, and high-ranking military officers, such as Erwin Rommel, accused of treason. Self-killing may be practiced by peoples lacking a codified law of punishment; the Trobriand Islanders hurled themselves ceremonially from the tops of palm trees after a serious public loss of face. There the line between social pressure and personal motivation begins to blur.

In less traditionalistic societies the causes of suicide are more difficult to establish. The problem has been approached from two different angles: the sociological, which stresses social pressures and the importance of social integration, and the psychoanalytic, which centers on the driving force of guilt and anxiety and the inverting of aggressive impulses. Recent studies have done much to dispel some of the myths surrounding suicide, such as the belief that suicidal tendencies are inherited; that suicidal tendencies cannot be reversed; and that persons who announce their intention to commit suicide will not carry out the threat.

Self-killing is expressly condemned by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and attempts are punishable by law in certain countries. Suicide was a felony in 11th-century England because the self-murderer was considered to have broken his bond of fealty, and his property was forfeited to the king. Suicides were interred on public highways with a stake driven through the heart; this practice was observed as late as 1823. In 1961, Great Britain abolished criminal penalties for attempting to commit suicide. By the early 1990s only two U.S. states still listed suicide as a crime; however, 18 states have laws against helping someone to commit suicide. A right-to-die movement has supported the principle of doctor-assisted suicide in certain cases (see euthanasia).

In the United States, most suicide attempts are by women, but out of 30,000 successful suicides (1989), 24,000 were men. In the 1980s the suicide rate among elderly rose 21%; the rate for people ages 15-23 has tripled since 1950.

Bibliography See Emile Durkheim, Suicide (1897, tr. 1951); Ruth Cavan, Suicide (1928, repr. 1965); Edward Stengel, Suicide and Attempted Suicide (1965); Jack Douglas, The Social Meanings of Suicide (1967); Edwin Shneidman, ed., Essays in Self-Destruction (1967); M. L. Farber, The Theory of Suicide (1968); E. A. Grollman, Suicide (1970); A. Alvarez, The Savage God (1972); Jacques Choron, Suicide (1972); David Lester, Why People Kill Themselves (1972); George Colt, The Enigma of Suicide (1991).


the deliberate taking of one's own life. It may be dictated by social convention, as with HARA-KIRI, in Japan, or by custom, as in those primitive societies in which nonproductive elders were expected to end their own lives for the welfare of the group. Long condemned by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, suicide remains a crime in some countries. Britain abolished punishment for attempted suicide in 1961, and by the early 1990s only two U.S. states still listed suicide as a crime. Eighteen states, however, have laws against helping someone to commit suicide. Suicide and attempted suicide are now more often considered the result of psychological factors, such as severe DEPRESSION, guilt, and AGGRESSION, or of chronic illness. Suicidal behavior is also viewed as a form of communication, a cry for help. In the U.S., most suicide attempts are by women, but out of 30,000 successful suicides (1989), 24,000 were by men. In recent years the suicide rate among the elderly has risen 21%; the rate for people ages 15-23 has tripled since 1950. In the 1990s a right-to-die movement has supported the principle of physician-assisted suicide in certain cases (see EUTHANASIA).



either painlessly putting to death (positive, or active, euthanasia) or failing to postpone death from natural causes (negative, or passive, euthanasia), as in cases of terminal illness. The term negative euthanasia has come to mean the withdrawal of extraordinary means (e.g., intravenous feeding, respirators, and artificial kidney machines) of prolonging life. Positive euthanasia is illegal under nearly all circumstances in the U.S., but physicians lawfully may refuse to prolong life when there is extreme suffering. In case of incapacitation a person's wishes concerning what life-support measures are or are not to be used to forestall death can be recorded in a LIVING WILL or preserved by a HEALTH-CARE PROXY. Whether measures used to keep the terminally ill alive are routine and justifiable or extraordinary remains a subject of debate. In the early 1990s in Michigan, Dr. Jack Kevorkian gained notoriety by assisting a number of people to commit suicide and became the object of a state law (1992) forbidding such activity. The Netherlands decriminalized (1993), under a set of restricted conditions, voluntary positive euthanasia (essentially, physician-assisted suicide) for the terminally ill, and Oregon voters approved (1994) physician-assisted suicide for some patients who are terminally.



[Jap., (= (belly-cutting], traditional Japanese form of suicide, performed in cases of disloyalty to the emperor. Obligatory hara-kiri was abolished in 1868, but voluntary forms have persisted.


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