Why People Burn Themselves Alive: A Look at Immolation Suicides

May 14, 2018


Last month a lawyer known for being a champion of LGBT rights set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The man left a handwritten suicide note on April 14 that said in part, “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide. I apologize to you for the mess.”

In a second note sent to local news media, Buckel said he hoped his suicide would serve as a call to action for environmental issues: “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result-my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

Buckel’s decision to kill himself is, sadly, not unusual. About 30,000 people die by suicide each year in America; it is the ninth leading cause of death in this country, and in fact the suicide rate is higher than the homicide rate.

The method he chose, however, is relatively rare, and the motivations for such drastic actions are mixed. Frustrated political and social activists usually see self-immolation as a powerful tool to bring international attention to their plight–as Buckel clearly described in his note.

Efforts to raise awareness sometimes spawn violent acts as well; for example in May 2002, six people were injured when eighteen pipe bombs left in rural mailboxes in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas exploded. The bombs were traced to Luke J. Helder, a twenty-one-year-old college student. Following a high-speed car chase, Helder was armed with a shotgun when he was arrested in Reno, Nevada. Helder wrote that the bombs were “attention getters” designed to enlighten the world to his beliefs about paranormal topics such as aliens, ghosts, astral projection, and spirit channeling. He wrote, “I’m taking very drastic measures in attempt to provide this information to you.”

In a few cases of self-immolation, the victims are mentally disturbed people. Suicide for its own sake is rarely the motivation; there are far less painful (and lower profile) ways to kill yourself. As one news outlet noted, “Bicyclist Rahmin Pavlovic, 43, claims Buckel’s choice spot for his death was no coincidence. ‘It’s definitely some kind of statement,’ Pavlovic told the Daily News. ‘He did it out in the open, right near the main entrance. Not in some tucked-away part of the park.'”

A well-known recent spate of self-immolation suicides began in Tunisia during the “Arab Spring” government protests when a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010. His death in January made him a martyr to Tunisians seeking revolution. Fiery copycat suicides soon spread throughout other north African countries. Five men set themselves afire in neighboring Algeria and Mauritania; one man, Abdou Abdel-Monaam Hamadah, in the Egyptian capital of Cairo set himself on fire outside a government office. He was hospitalized with burns on over half of his body. Others followed as well.

Loren Coleman, author of The Copycat Effect, told me in an interview at the time that “Clearly, behavior contagion is in evidence in the wave of self-immolations, which are undertaken for communicative reasons to speak out against government policies. Since the time of the monks during the Vietnam War, fiery public suicides have been used to express displeasure with official positions.” Ironically, as Coleman notes, the news coverage encourages even more copycat immolations: “They have become a copycat phenomena because the media reports report them so visually and graphically, leading to other immolations and public reactions, even protests. The fact the Arab press is publishing the photos of the burn victims in their hospital beds, some of whom have died, is merely fanning the flames.”

Buckel’s suicide has so far not spawned any copycats, though it’s too soon to tell whether it will encourage Americans to eschew fossil fuels.