It used to be that those who committed suicide were not allowed to be buried within the consecrated boundaries of a cemetery. Instead, they were buried just outside the cemetery on unconsecrated ground.
I had heard of this custom (which seems to have been overwhelmingly Jewish and Catholic), but never had seen evidence until today. My dad never had to bury anyone apart from others because of cause of death.
So I was surprised to learn, after visiting with a group of Lutheran pastors today, that there is an example of this in a cemetery just outside of Otisco, Minnesota. The people of St. Peter Lutheran Church knew the name of the fellow–Paul Kuss–but did not know when he died. I could check it out for myself, they said–take County Road 15 east for a couple of miles, then County Road 5 north for half a mile.
Sure enough, Paul Kuss lies far away from the few dozen others in the tiny, rural cemetery. He died in 1910, when the rules for suicide burials were more widely enforced. This cemetery is associated with the Lutheran church, so clearly some Lutherans also abided by burial restrictions found in other denominations and faiths.
In the Catholic Church, these rules were relaxed after the sweeping changes of Vatican II in 1962. The bishop used to have to approve church funerals for those who took their own lives, but now it is up to individual parish priests on how to proceed.
The FAQ page for Holy Cross cemeteries in San Francisco addresses the question of suicide and burial:
“It is recognized that those who die from the act of suicide deserve understanding and compassion. The deceased may have been suffering from a serious psychological instability, or overwhelming fear and confusion. Therefore, the church offers funeral and burial rites for those who may have died as a result of suicide. The American edition of the Catholic ritual includes prayers for this specific situation. These prayers evoke forgiveness for the departed and consolation to their family.”
From what I can find, the Jewish religion now has similar sentiments and will bury suicides within a cemetery. Jewish cemeteries also used to have a restriction on burying people who had tattoos, based on Leviticus 19:28, but I think that now has been eased, too.
Have you ever seen any examples of people buried outside cemetery gates?