Alberta, NWT bishops want to refuse funerals for assisted deaths

Guidelines say priests should weigh circumstances of each funeral request, but high-profile assisted deaths can't be celebrated

EDMONTON – Guidelines from the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories say priests should refuse funerals for some people who choose assisted suicide.

The document describes how physician-assisted death is a “grave sin” and contradicts the teachings of the Catholic church.

It says priests should weigh the circumstances of each funeral request, but high-profile assisted deaths can’t be celebrated.

“If the church were to refuse a funeral to someone, it is not to punish the person but to recognize his or her decision – a decision that has brought him or her to an action that is contrary to the Christian faith, that is somehow notorious and public and would do harm to the Christian community and the larger culture,” says the document.

It also says families should be supported, but those who want to celebrate the assisted deaths of their loved ones can’t do it at a church funeral.

“This would be truly scandalous, as it would be an encouragement to others to engage in the evil that is euthanasia and assisted suicide. Such a request for funeral rites must be gently but firmly denied.”

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on medically assisted dying. In June, the federal government enacted a law allowing it for those in an advanced state of irreversible decline from an incurable condition and for those facing a “reasonably foreseeable” natural death.

The Catholic church allows funerals for people who have committed other types of suicide, say the guidelines, because their reasoning may not be clear.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith believes the guidelines are the first to be issued by a group of bishops in Canada.

Church officials in Alberta had questions about assisted death when legislation was in the works, Smith said, and many thought guidelines were needed for last rites and funerals. The document was signed by six bishops in the region.

Smith said bishops from other regions have asked him about the guidelines, but he doesn’t know of any who are planning to issue their own in the near future.

He also said he hasn’t heard that any priests in Alberta have yet dealt with an assisted death.

When it happens, they will have to weigh several factors, Smith suggested, including whether the person is repentant.

“The general principles are clear. The various situations in which they apply can be highly nuanced and diverse,” he said in a phone interview Thursday at a meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Cornwall, Ont.

“It’s going to be the role of the priest in these situations to say how best do we bring all of this together – the care of the person, the care for the family, respecting the integrity of the sacraments?”

If there can’t be a funeral, priests may agree to hold prayers at a graveside or funeral home, he said. The guidelines say a memorial mass is another option.

Shanaaz Gokool of Dying with Dignity Canada said she’s heard of people in Catholic nursing homes and hospitals having difficulty arranging assisted deaths.

She believes the guidelines are a “thinly veiled threat” by the church to followers considering assisted death.

“You tell people in the most vulnerable time in their lives – people who are frail and who are suffering – that if you want to access your charter right, your human right to an assisted death … then you’re going to have to make a choice between relieving your suffering and everything you may have believed in for however many years.

“It’s just appalling.”