The Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories have issued guidelines that say priests should refuse
funerals for some people who die by assisted suicide.
In the guidelines,which are available online, the bishops are careful to draw a distinction between suicide and assisted suicide.
They write that the Catholic Church "does, in fact, celebrate Christian funerals for those who have been found after the fact to have committed suicide." The reason behind holding these funerals is the Church is "not able to judge the reason the person has taken that decision or the disposition of their heart."
Assisted suicide and euthanasia are to be treated differently, the bishops say.
"The case of assisted suicide or euthanasia, however, is a situation where more can sometimes be known of the disposition of the person and the freedom of the chronically ill man or woman, particularly if it is high-profile or notorious. In such cases, it may not be possible to celebrate a Christian funeral. "
The document calls physician-assisted death a "grave sin" that contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church.
'Right to follow their conscience'
Rev. Brian Kiely of the Unitarian Church of Edmonton, a spokesmen for Dying with Dignity, said he had no problem with the Catholic guidelines.
"This is the Catholic Church deciding what is appropriate within their rules," Kiely said. "They have a complete right to follow their conscience and to follow the church rules.
"By their evaluation grave sin is taking their own life or allowing that to happen. In that case, they're actually required to withhold the sacraments."
'This is the Catholic Church deciding what is appropriate within their rules. They have a complete right to follow their conscience and to follow the church rules.' - Brian Kiely
The guidelines says priests should weigh the circumstances of each funeral request, but those for high-profile assisted deaths should be refused. It also says families who want to celebrate the assisted-death decisions of their loved ones should be denied church funerals.
"This would be truly scandalous, as it would be an encouragement to others to engage in the evil that is euthanasia and assisted suicide," the guidelines say. "Such a request for funeral rites must be gently but firmly denied."
The church does say that while "official funeral rites must be denied," there is still the possibility of a memorial mass for the person at a later date, simple prayers at the graveside, or a liturgy held at the funeral home. The decision to hold one of these rites is at the discretion of the priest.
"It must always be remembered that the burial of the dead is among the corporal works of mercy," the guidelines say.
Alberta Health Services has said it is having trouble keeping up with the demand for assisted death in Alberta. Since the onset of the year 29 people have ended their lives in this way.
"We knew that people would be waiting to ask after June 6," said Dr. James Silvius, the lead for medical assistance in dying preparedness for AHS.
"We thought that there would be a significant number that would then kind of settle down a bit, but we're actually seeing that the numbers are steady and haven't settled down at all. The [numbers are] about the same — between two and four a week.
"We are looking at what the resource needs are. The numbers are taxing for the individuals that are doing this work."
While Kiely said he sees no problems with guidelines for the funeral rites, he does take issue with Covenant Health, which runs Catholic hospitals in Edmonton and other centres. Covenant Health has transferred patients requesting medically-assisted deaths to other hospitals.
The critical difference, Kiely says, comes down to public money.
"The issue I have had with the Roman Catholic Church is not how they manage their in-house delivery of service but rather in hospitals they manage that are public institutions," he said.
'The issue I have had with the Roman Catholic church is not how they manage their in house delivery of service but rather in hospitals they manage that are public institutions.' - Brian Kiely
He said Covenant Health staff and patients aren't all Catholic, yet the organization is "refusing to provide assisted dying services. That feels inappropriate to us."
Edmonton Catholic Archbishop Richard Smith said the guidelines are the first to be issued by a group of bishops in Canada.
Kiely said he believes the guidelines are not hurting anyone.
"That's freedom of religion and that's guaranteed in our country," he said.
"Just as I prize the freedom of our Unitarian values, I would not take them away from anyone else as long as it's not doing physical harm to someone."