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Time to put an end to 'circus funerals' that just glamorise act of suicide, insists priest Gary Donegan

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Fr Gary Donegan has taken a strong line on suicide funeral Masses since 2008

Fr Gary Donegan has taken a strong line on suicide funeral Masses since 2008

Fr Gary Donegan has taken a strong line on suicide funeral Masses since 2008

An influential Belfast priest has said he will not permit football tops, rap music or "over-the-top" floral tributes at funeral services he conducts for young suicide victims.

Father Gary Donegan has taken the decision because he is concerned they are helping to "glamorise" the legacy of suicide.

He also said that eulogies to celebrities who had taken their own lives "weren't helping the situation".

Speaking after at least five tragic deaths so far this year, the former Holy Cross rector said parents need to get across to children the message that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Fr Donegan told the Belfast Telegraph that he was willing to "put his head above the parapet" and speak out if it would in some way help save lives.

His strident comments come after a recent report by mental health charity Samaritans revealed that suicide rates for men and women are higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK or Ireland.

"We need to face up to the reality that our young people are very vulnerable," Fr Donegan said.

"Children need to be reminded that it's wrong to take their own lives because the message has become so anaesthetised that it's somehow become acceptable.

"And by allowing a lot of non-religious paraphernalia at funerals, you're condoning this message that these kids have gone on to better things, dancing with the angels etc, which is wrong, because that encourages other children to consider doing the same thing."

Earlier this month Fr Donegan said Requiem Mass for an 11-year-old schoolboy, who died suddenly at his north Belfast home.

It is the youngest loss of life he has dealt with so far and he described it as "devastating".

The Crossgar-based cleric, who previously worked in the Ardoyne parish in north Belfast, also revealed that, previously, he had been a co-celebrant at the funeral Mass for a 12-year-old who had taken their own life.

He recalled that, on that occasion, the service was characterised by rap music, football shirts and flowers.

"One of the things I said after that was that I was going to change the optics of services for suicides," Fr Donegan added.

"I vowed that there wasn't going to be rap music, there wasn't going to be football jerseys bearing the child's name, there wasn't going to be a car park looking like the Chelsea Flower Show because in some way it was taking away from the true horror of what had happened."

He also believes the awfulness of suicide often gets diluted when a well-known personality takes their own life.

"If a celebrity does take their own life, what often happens is that person after person gets up and gives a eulogy, canonising that individual," said Fr Donegan.

"I'm not going to judge anyone, but I'm not prepared to canonise somebody who leaves a legacy behind to be copied, which then leads to the same result."

He added: "I stood up in Ardoyne as far back as 2008 and said there will be no circus funerals on my watch.

"During my four years as parish priest in Ardoyne - I was eight years as rector - not a single suicide happened within the confines of the parish. That record is there."

As well as seeking an end to the glamorisation, Fr Donegan called for a more robust approach to the war on drugs, which he believes are partly to blame for the escalation of the suicide crisis here.

"If you have someone taking mind-altering drugs and they're suffering from paranoia and they think well I'll have my day of glory, there'll be a packed church, a car park full of flowers, people wearing football tops with my name on them, all the rest of it," he said.

The north Belfast area has been devastated by a series of tragic deaths in recent years.

In one of the most high-profile cases, in September 2017, mother Patricia Ferrin told of her heartache after losing a third son, 31-year-old Stephen Ferrin, to suicide.

His death came three-and-a-half years after the death of his brother Kieran (24) and six years after his other brother Niall (19).

Beside herself with grief, their mother told this newspaper that she hoped nobody else ever experiences her pain.

She added: "My heart is torn away. There's nothing there."

Their cousin Christopher, also 19, had also taken his own life in 2010; four popular young men who seemingly had everything to live for, whose sudden deaths stunned the local community.

Fr Donegan also said the buck stops with society when it comes to suicide.

He added: "We all have a role to play in stopping suicide; we have to tell it as it is.

"Since the recent deaths, I have had to get referrals for professional help for an unbelievable number of young people.

"If something happened to an elderly person for example, you'd have a celebration of a good long, sacrificial life... the sadness and the emptiness are still there, but when you're burying an 11-year-old, a 17-year-old, a 22-year-old - they didn't even experience life.

"It's tragic. It's a waste. It's not a celebration."

Recalling the experience of dealing with grieving families, the priest added: "Take a look into the eyes of a heartbroken, devastated mum. They will tell you that grief is the cost of love.

"When all the crowds are gone the family of the bereaved are left with that reality.

"They will live without their son or daughter or brother or sister 24/7.

"Young people need to know that suicide is permanent."

Anyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis, or who feels they need support can telephone Lifeline on 0808 808 8000 or ring the Samaritans on 116 123.

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