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Senicide, also known as geronticide or gerontocide, is the practice of killing the elderly. This killing of the elderly can be characterized by both active and passive methods as senio-euthanasia or altruistic self-sacrifice. The aim of active senio-euthanasia is to relieve the clan, family, or society from the burden of a “useless eater”.[citation needed] But an old person might kill themself (autothanasia) altruistically.[1] In case of the altruistic self-sacrifice, the aim is to fulfill an old tradition or to stop being a burden to the clan. Both are understood as a sacrificial death. Senicide is found in various cultures all over the world and has been practiced during different time periods. The methods of senicide are rooted in the traditions and customs of a given society.


The word senicide "is less well known, though of older provenance" than geronticide. It is "so rare a word that Microsoft Word’s spellcheck underlines it in red, itching to autocorrect it to suicide”, according to historian Niall Ferguson.[2] In an article for The Fortnightly Review, African explorer Harry Johnston first used 1889 the term “senicide”. He reported that in ancient Sardinia, the Sardi considered it a sacred duty to kill their elderly relatives with a club or by forcing them to jump from a high cliff.[3] Various authors use the terms “gerontocide” and “geronticide” interchangeably. Maxwell[4] might have used geronticide for the first time in 1983. Today we find both terms in common usage; “senicide”, referring to the cultural and ritual killing of the old aged; and “geronticide”, referring to the murder or manslaughter of any senior person.[5]

Senicide in ethnography and history[edit]

Since there is little evidence of these killings, such as court records or very rare eyewitness accounts, it has been suggested that most of these reports are chilling myths about cruel practices of foreign peoples or past times. Schulte criticized in a review of sources on native North America the quality of the data, the role of hearsay and uncredited copying of information. "This is particularly unfortunate as there is indeed some positive evidence for a practice of gerontocide, which could serve as a basis for serious studies" (2001, p. 25).[6] However, senicide can be easily detected in the custom of thalaikoothal to this day in India.[7]

The low value and image of old age is the source of all ageism, which may lead especially in very old age and times of great need to senicide.[8] According to author Michael Brogden, most "societies kill the elderly“ under certain conditions, or more precisely: "it is the social group that kills".[9] Brogden also noted that very often in close family groups, it is the son, after an intensive discussion among the elders, who carries out the killing. Pousset found in an overview of some ethnological studies or collections (Koty, 1934;[10] Simmons, 1945;[11] Glascock, 1982;[12] Maxwell/Silverman, 1989;[13] Südkamp;[14] Beauvoir, 1996[15]) that 162 ethnic groups worldwide practiced senicide (2023[5]).

It has been claimed that only in a "few idyllic pastures for older people" was there no senicide, not even reflected in legends, folk and fairy tales (see the collection of Dee L. Ashliman) or in ethnographic studies (Brogden/ Nijhar, 2000[16]). There is no pervasive or extensively confirmed senicide among the Hungarians, Finns, Jews, Egyptians, and Persians. Simone de Beauvoir names other ethnic groups like the Kuna, Inca and Balinese, who have a strong cultural tradition of respect for their older citizens and no extensive tradition of senicide. There are other groups in which older citizens lose prestige, but these groups do not practice senicide. These include Arando, Choroti, Jivaro, Lele, Lepcha, Mataco, Miao, Mende and Zande (Beauvoir, 1996[17]). Concerning some ethnic groups like the Aleutian, more research is needed as different results are found whether they do practice senicide.

Forms of senicide[edit]

In senio-euthanasia or involuntary euthanasia, the old person is actively killed by strangulation, drowning, stabbing by a club, shooting, submersion in an oil-bath, being pushed or forced to jump from a cliff, hypo- or hypermedication, and other methods. Senio-euthanasia might also occur passively by omission and termination of treatment as well as neglect by abandonment until death. In some cases, senicide progresses slowly through a long period of social death. This situation in today’s old age homes is frequently referred to as “granny dumping”. An old person may altruistically use either an active or passive method to end his life like throwing under a train or poisoning, or he dies a silent-passive death by laying down in the savannah or a cavern e.g. - dying a psychogenic death. The old person may also voluntarily refuse all food and fluids (VRFF) - also voluntarily stop eating and drinking (VSED). This ends in terminal dehydration. Émile Durkheim described the type of psychogenic death as fatalistic suicide. VRFF was already known by the Greeks and Romans in antiquity as a highly distinctive method to end life, the autothanasia. The Greeks called the method of stopping voluntarily all food and fluids kartería (endurance), the Romans inedia (no food), (Hooff, 1990[18]).

Heroic death[edit]

An especially distinctive and altruistic form of sacrificial death or suicide is called “heroic death” and is known from antiquity (Hooff, 2004).[19] A hero risks his life in noble deeds of bravery. Eventually he kills himself for others or for a higher goal. A suicide bomber should not be counted as altruistic-heroic because of the egotistic and deadly aggressiveness of his actions against innocent others. Heroes risk everything, might die for others and higher goals, but they refrain from killing others except for self-defense. So, the silent and altruistic death in VRFF or inedia might be rated as heroic.

Intentions of altruistic senicide[edit]

In both altruistic cases of senicide – active and passive – the primary intention is not to end the suffering but instead to stop being a burden for the clan or society. If the intention of VRFF is to end one’s suffering, we can speak of death by fasting. In the case the aim is to stop being a burden for the clan we speak of “silent extinction”. The distinction between a suicide and a sacrificial death is extremely difficult to make because it requires that we know the intention of the person involved. Only if seniors document or proclaim in advance their intent, others can be quite sure. But even then, while one motivation may be communicated to the group, the true motivation may be an underlying and undiagnosed depression.

Motivation for senicide[edit]

The social motivations for senicide are disputed. Motivations arising during times of environmental difficulties and war. For reasons of conflict are somewhat understandable. However, there are ethnic groups who practice senicide primarily from socio-tradition. External factors are not the primary motivations. These societies emphasize socio-cultural explanations that give an added value or unique perspective to the death of an elder person. They see the elderly person’s death as voluntary and their deaths as valiant and commendable under the circumstances. All cases arise from material necessity. Modern forms of senicide are senio-euthanasia via neglect, stopping various life-supporting devices, and under- or overmedication in family or old age homes are more clandestine. The form of altruistic VRFF as extinction is known as the “silent scandal” (Pousset 2023, p. 2[5])

Risk and protection factors[edit]

Modern societies are questioning the value of the old. Risk factors for the older generations include low income, food insecurity, religious indifference, greediness of potential heirs, and hostility. Factors protecting older citizens include a protective family environment, personal wealth, empathetic family concern, and social respectability. Personal wealth is ambivalent in nature, it can be both a protective factor and a risk factor. Also, in many Asian or African cultures - known for their traditional honoring of old age - we must face the collapse of any respect in some outstanding cases.[20] In Kenya we have reports from “greedy” children who hunt or kill their parents or grandparents by accusing them of witchcraft. “Each year, more than 400 older people are killed in Kenya’s coastal region, with over 1,000 facing death threats”[1], according to the founder of an old age rescue centre near Malindi. In this region, threatened elders seek shelter and protection. This form of senicide or active senio-euthanasie can be considered as gerontocide or bluntly murder.

Is the sacrificial death a suicide?[edit]

It is discussed in gerontology whether passive and silent senicide must be counted as suicide. Some authors don’t count it as an unnaturally and violent suicide but place it - between murder and suicide - as a third form of externally caused death - due to its natural and non-violent character. The intention of the sacrificial senicide is first no longer to live - but not to kill. Death is a natural consequence of stopping all basic means to live. Also, the unconscious psychogenic death shows that there is room for a third form of autothanasia (self-killing). You hardly could rate a psychogenic death as a suicide. We also must include the process of “voluntary euthanasia” in which a person requests that others end their life to relieve them of suffering. Several authors refer to this as “passive suicide”.

COVID-19 and senicide[edit]

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light attitudes of ageism in policy and private life which neglected the value and vulnerability of the aged ones heavily or completely. Senicide related to the pandemic was counted as "the word of the hour" by Niall Ferguson.[21] Usually pandemics hit children first, but the coronavirus targeted the old ones first. So, their protection should have come paramount – at least from a humanitarian point of view. Niall Ferguson argued hopefully in 2020: "Senicide will never be tolerated in the 2020s, least of all in modern, developed democracies".[22]

By culture[edit]


In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the illegal practice of senicide – known locally as thalaikoothal – is said to occur dozens or perhaps hundreds of times each year.[23] The practice is illegal in India.[24][25]


In earlier times Inuit would leave their elderly on the ice to die but it was rare, except during famines. The last known case of Inuit senicide was in 1939.[26][27][28][29]


According to legends a practice called Ubasute (姥捨, 'abandoning an old woman') was performed in Japan in the distant past, whereby an infirm or elderly relative was carried to a mountain, or some other remote, desolate place, and left there to die. However there is no evidence that this has ever been a common custom.[30]


According to Korean folklore, a practice called "Goryeojang" or "Goryeo burial" was performed in Korea in the distant past. whereby an infirm or elderly female relative was left to death by starvation. The term "Goryeo" places the practice in the Goryeo dynasty (the far past). The folklore element has been traced to Chinese and Japanese stories rather than Korean origin, but it was also associated with the existence of grave goods in common Goryeo-era stone tombs, with the characteristic small rice pot found by "pot hunters" as evidence of that practice.[31][32]


In Nordic folklore, the ättestupa is a cliff where elderly people were said to leap, or be thrown, to death. While the trope has survived as an urban legend, and a metaphor for deficient welfare for the elderly, a researcher argues that the practice never existed.[33][34]


Lapot is a mythical Serbian practice of disposing of one's parents.

Ancient Rome and Greece[edit]

Parkin provides eighteen cases of senicide which the people of antiquity believed happened.[35]: 265  Of these cases, only two of them occurred in Greek society; another took place in Roman society, while the rest happened in other cultures. One example that Parkin provides is of the island of Keos in the Aegean Sea. Although many different variations of the Keian story exist, the legendary practice may have begun when the Athenians besieged the island. In an attempt to preserve the food supply, the Keians voted for all people over 60 years of age to die by suicide by drinking hemlock.[35]: 264  The other case of Roman senicide occurred on the island of Sardinia, where human sacrifices of 70-years-old fathers were made by their sons to the titan Cronus.[36]

In fiction[edit]

Works of fiction which have dealt with senicide include:

Title by author/director novel/film year, remarks
Accabadora Michela Murgia novel 2009, ital./2012, engl.
Baaram or The Burden Priya Krishnaswamy film in Tamil-language, National Award
Boomsday Christopher Buckley dystopia novel 2007
Catching Fire Suzanne Collins

dystopia novel

Dinosaurs season-one episode, "Hurling Day" 1991
Goryeojang Kim Ki-young film 1963, Korea
K.D. Madhumitha film 2019, in Tamil-language
Logan's Run Michael Anderson science fiction film 1976
Map of the Human Heart Vincent Ward film 1992
Midsommar Ari Aster folk horror film 2019
Norsemen Norwegian NRK-Viafilm TV comedy series since 2017
North: The Tale of a 9-Year-Old Boy Alan Zweibel novel 1984
North Rob Reiner film 1994
Pebble in the Sky Isaac Asimov science fiction novel 1950
Star Trek: The Next Generation season-four episode "Half a Life" 1991
The Ballad of Narayama: Narayama bushikō - 楢山節考) Shichirō Fukazawa novel 1957, Chūō Kōron Prize
The Ballad of Narayama Keisuke Kinoshita film 1958
The Ballad of Narayama Shōhei Imamura film 1983, Palme d'Or in 1983
The Children of Men P. D. James dystopia novel 1992
The Fixed Period Anthony Trollope dystopia novel 1882
The Giver Lois Lowry dystopia novel 1993
The Law of Life Jack London short story 1901
The Old Law Thomas Middleton, William Rowley tragicomedy 1656
Two Old Women Velma Wallis novel 1993
The Sandbox Edward Albee play 1959
This Perfect Day Ira Levin science fiction novel 1992, Prometheus Award
The Tripods John Christopher science fiction novels since 1967
The Tripods BBC science fiction TV series since 1984

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Battin, Margaret Pabst (2009). Altruistic suicide. In: Bryant, Clifton D. & Peck, Dennis L. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience, vol. 1. Thousand Oaks/ London/ New Delhi/ Singapore: Sage publications, 2009, pp. 32–35.
  2. ^ Ferguson, Niall (23 March 2020). "Western mismanagement of coronavirus means the elderly are targets". Boston Globe. Retrieved 3 December 2023.
  3. ^ Shipley, Joseph Twadell (1984). The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. ^ Maxwell, Robert et al. (1983). The Motive of Geronticide. In: Sokolovsky, Jay (ed.). Aging and the aged in the third world. Studies in Third World Societies, vol. 22, pp. 67 - 84. Williamsburg: College of William and Mary.
  5. ^ a b c Pousset, Raimund (2023). Senicide and Old Age Killing. An Overdue Discourse. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. ISBN 978-3-658-39497-4 (eBook 978-3-658-39498-1)
  6. ^ Schulte, Anja (2001). Geronticide in Science-Fiction and Fact. A Critical Review of Sources on Native Nord America.In: European Review of Ameri-can Studies. 15:2, 2001, pp. 31 – 36.
  7. ^ Chatterjee, Pyali (2014). Thalaikoothal. The Practice of Euthanasia in the Name of Custom. European Researcher, 2014, Vol. 87, Is.2, pp. 2005-2012. doi:10.13187/er.2014.87.2005
  8. ^ Pousset, Raimund (2023). Senicide and Old Age Killing. An Overdue Discourse. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. ISBN 978-3-658-39497-4 (eBook 978-3-658-39498-1).
  9. ^ Brogden, Mike (2001). Geronticide: Killing the Elderly. London/Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp.182–183.
  10. ^ Koty, John (1934). Die Behandlung der Alten und Kranken bei den Naturvölkern. Stuttgart: Hirschfeld.
  11. ^ Simmons, Leo W. (1945). The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society. New Haven.
  12. ^ Glascock, Anthony P. (1982). Decrepitude and Death-Hastening. The Nature of Age in the Third World Societies. In: Sutlive, Vinson et alt. (ed.). Aging and the Aged in the Third World. Studies in Third World Societies. Vol. 22, S. 1. Williamsburg: College of William and Mary.
  13. ^ Maxwell, Robert / Silverman, Philip (1989). Gerontocide. In: Bolton, R. (ed.). The Content of Culture: Constant and Variants. New Haven: HRAF Press.
  14. ^ Südkamp, Horst. Inzestverbot und Status, Statusfaktor Generation. Retrieved July 25th, 2023
  15. ^ Beauvoir, Simone de (1996). The Coming of Age. New York: Norton.
  16. ^ Brogden, Mike/Nijhar, Preeti (2000). Crime, Abuse, and the Elderly. Cullompton: Willan.
  17. ^ Beauvoir, Simone de (1996). The Coming of Age. New York: Norton. ISBN 9780393314434. (French: La Vieillesse, 1970).
  18. ^ Hooff, Anton van (1990). From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity. London: Routledge.
  19. ^ Hooff, Anton van (2004). Paetus, it does not hurt. Altruistic suicide in the Greco-Romano world. In: Archives of Suicide Research 8/1. (Special edition: Altruistic Suicide: From Sainthood to Terrorism), pp. 43-56.
  20. ^ Adinkrah, Mensah (2020). Grannicides in Ghana: a study of lethal violence by grandchildren against grandmothers. In: J Elder Abuse Negl. 2020; 32: pp. 275–294. doi:10.1080/08946566.2020.1740126.
  21. ^ Ferguson, Niall (2020-03-20). ""Senizid" heisst das Wort der Stunde: Das Coronavirus wirkt im höchsten Masse altersdiskriminierend". Neue Zürcher Zeitung. NZZ. Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  22. ^,%202023
  23. ^ Magnier, Mark (January 15, 2013). "In southern India, relatives sometimes quietly kill their elders". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  24. ^ Chatterjee, Pyali (2014). Thalaikoothal. The Practice of Euthanasia in the Name of Custom. European Researcher, 2014, Vol. 87, Iss. 2, pp. 2005–12. doi:10.13187/er.2014.87.2005
  25. ^ Chatterjee, P. (2023). Thalaikoothal, a Smack for Indian Society: A Socio-Legal Study. In: Herwig, H., Pousset, R. (eds) Senizid. Springer VS, Wiesbaden.
  26. ^ "Did Eskimos put their elderly on ice floes to die?" The Straight Dope (May 4, 2004)
  27. ^ "Senilicide and Invalidicide among the Eskimos" by Rolf Kjellström in Folk: Dansk etnografisk tidsskrift, volume 16/17 (1974/75)
  28. ^ "Notes on Eskimo Patterns of Suicide" by Alexander H. Leighton and Charles C. Hughes in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, volume 11 (1955)
  29. ^ Eskimos and Explorers, 2d ed., by Wendell H. Oswalt (1999)
  30. ^ Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993, p. 1121.
  31. ^
  32. ^;view=fulltext
  33. ^ Birgitta Odén (interview) (29 September 1999). "Ättestupan bara en skröna". Dagens Nyheter.
  34. ^ Odén, Birgitta (1996). "Ättestupan – myt eller verklighet?". Scandia: Tidskrift för Historisk Forskning (in Swedish). 62 (2): 221–234. ISSN 0036-5483. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  35. ^ a b Parkin, Tim G (2003). Old Age in the Roman World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 9780801871283. Retrieved 16 November 2019.
  36. ^ Redazione (2023-01-23). "Il sacrificio degli anziani nella Sardegna antica, tra mito e tracce storiche". Query Online (in Italian). Retrieved 2023-07-22.