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What is a Felo De Se?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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The Latin phrase “felo de se” translates as “felon of himself,” and was at one time used to refer to someone who committed suicide. Suicide was deemed a felony under the legal system in some nations, and thus someone who committed suicide was committing a felony against her or himself. This term is no longer in common use in the legal community today, although people may sometimes spot it in archaic texts, including works of fiction in which a felo de se is a plot point.

Under some historical legal systems, if someone was ruled a felo de se during an inquest after death, his or her property was forfeit to the government. For the government, this could work out quite advantageously in the case of wealthy people who committed suicide. For the family members of people who committed suicide, of course, this punishment had the opposite effect and could lead to a family becoming destitute. Indeed, one would argue that it was the family member of the felo de se, not the actual criminal, who was punished for the suicide.

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Property forfeiture was not the only punishment provided in cases of suicide. The deceased could also be refused a burial in consecrated ground, especially if they had been deemed to be of sound mind at the time of the death. A felo de se would sometimes be buried at a crossroads as a result of superstition and some other superstitious traditions were also observed in various cultures at the burial of someone who had committed suicide. In other cases, if family members could demonstrate that someone was not of sound mind and committed suicide because of distress or despair, the deceased might be buried in consecrated ground.

Some more progressive lawmakers eventually determined that confiscating the property of someone convicted posthumously of being a felo de se only punished surviving family members, and did not necessarily serve as a deterrent to committing suicide. As a result, it was ruled that property could be allowed to descend to surviving family members.

Today, criminalization of suicide is rare. Most countries do provide measures to intervene in suicide attempts with the goal of preventing suicide, but someone who attempts or completes a suicide is not considered a felo de se. However, assisted suicide is illegal in many nations because there are concerns about differentiating between assisted suicide and murder. In regions where assisted suicide is not criminalized, people usually need to document the process carefully, including meticulous documentation of the wishes of the deceased.

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