Thursday 7 May 2020

Tiverton MPs Changed Suicide Burial Law in 1882

In Snell (1892), an update on "recent events" caught my eye. It used to be that if someone committed suicide, a verdict of "felo de se" was returned at the inquest. This meant the deceased had to be buried within 24 hours of the warrant, only between 9pm and midnight, and without rites.

Sir John Heathcoat-Amory, MP for Tiverton 1868-1885
Sir John Heathcoat-Amory,
MP for Tiverton 1868-1885

Responding to strong feelings in the town following a specific incident, a motion was tabled by the members for Tiverton, Viscount Ebrington and Sir John Heathcoat-Amory, which successfully resulted in the Interments (felo de se) Act 1882:
A melancholy incident, which led to an alteration in the statute-law of England, occurred in Tiverton in the closing days of 1881. James Holmes, a factory operative, 28 years of age, committed suicide one Thursday afternoon by cutting his throat. He was a man of irreproachable character, and for some months previously had suffered much from weakness, complaining of pressure on the head, and being at times light-headed.

On the day after his death an inquest was held, at which the jury returned a verdict of "Felo de se", adding a rider to the effect that in their opinion "the act was committed whilst the deceased was under great mental depression". It being necessary, in order to comply with the requirements of the law, that the interment should take place between the hours of nine p.m. and midnight, and also within twenty-four hours of the issuing of the Coroner's warrant (which in this case was issued about eight o'clock on Friday evening), the Superintendent of Police was obliged to arrange for the funeral the same night. Some delay was caused through the absence of the Cemetery-keeper from home; but about ten p.m. two excavators commenced digging the grave, in a remote corner of the cemetery; and the interment took place a few minutes before midnight. There were no religious rites, but after the interment the Rev. J. P. Carey, pastor of the Baptist Church (with which Holmes was associated) offered an extempore prayer. The proceedings were watched with deep interest by hundreds of spectators; and the incident caused an intense feeling of indignation throughout the town.

Early in the following year (1882) a Bill "to amend the law relating to the interment of any person found felo de se" was introduced into the House of Commons by Viscount Ebrington and Sir John Amory (the members for Tiverton). The effect of this measure was to repeal the enactments requiring a hurried burial without religious rites, and to sanction the interment "in any of the ways prescribed or authorised by the Burial Laws Amendment Act, 1880".

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