How to Bury Our DeadPosted in Grief, Homophobia & Transphobia, Living with HIV/AIDS, Personal Stories By Amber Dawn On December 14, 2011
We would like to thank our (first!) special guest author, Amber Dawn, and Arsenal Pulp Press, for allowing us to republish this short story on QueerMentalHealth.org. Grief is a very important issue for mental health, and Amber Dawn does an amazing job at addressing how we can deal with grief within the LGBTQ community. This short story can be found in the anthology, Second Person Queer (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008). Amber, you are a powerful writer, and we at QueerMentalHealth.org would like to invite you to come back anytime.
Trigger warning for transphobic violence, and drug use.
Have you ever had to attend a Catholic or Sikh or a Japanese or an Irish funeral and felt a little uncertain about the cultural grieving practices? We can all thank cyberspace for easy to find funeral etiquette. Simply visit Wikipedia before you do something tactless, like sending flowers to a Jewish funeral service.
Now try doing a search for “queer funeral etiquette” and Wikipedia will tell you that there is “no page titled ‘queer funeral etiquette.’” Try Googling it. The closest result is a website that explains tipping etiquette for gay men vacationing in Mexico.
It only gets worse if you swap labels and mix up words. One of the first results on a search for “gay memorial service” brought me to an article about the US Supreme Court’s decision to allow homophobic picketing at military services, if the fallen officer was queer – this in 2011.
Everyone dies; we can agree on that. And although we probably don’t really like to, we can also agree that the mortality rate for queers is higher than for happily married heterosexuals. Doesn’t it seem a little off that we—with our rich array of community rituals and traditions—don’t have customary means to mourn? Exactly how do we bury our dead?
I am not an expert. All of my grieving I’ve done in rather bitter privacy. I can only share with you my stories of bereavement in hopes that they help spark conversation, and that conversation brings change. I believe this is the way we queer folks do things.
I’ll start us of with what I know—my family is made up of mostly hard-working farmers, church goers, and strong believers in heaven. I was seven years old when I attended my first funeral. My Great Uncle Dave lived with his wife, Dottie, on a corn and chicken farm until he died of a heart attack before fifty. My ma made a bed for me in the back seat of the Volkswagen Rabbit and drove without stopping from Fort Erie, Ontario to Auburn, New York. Her good black dress hung in the back passenger-side window: a funeral garb curtain that blocked the sun as I dozed away the five-hour drive.
When we arrived, Dave and Dottie’s frame house was still as huge and white as ever. The corn still stood in dutiful rows. Willow trees sprawled across the front lawn, still waiting for grandkids and cousins to climb them. Dottie’s mean-tempered geese chased me up the driveway, hissing, like they always had done.
My ma led me to the back door—because family never came through the front—and into the mudroom where Uncle Dave’s flannel shirts crowded the coat tree. I watched her gulp back a grievous sob as she searched for an empty hook for my red wool poncho. Growing up with a single mom, I had seen plenty of tears. Mamma wasn’t one to hide her most recent dating disaster or debt struggles. But this was different. This sounded as if something had been dislodged deep in the combines of her body. Her crying fired up loudly and continued, almost mechanically, as we were received by a half-dozen or so aunties, passed around the kitchen from one set of open arms to the next.
What I learned about funerals that day: You get to keep your (Sunday) shoes on inside the house. Cake and pie arrives in landslides. No one jabbers when the priest stays to drink with the family. Well-recited stories are told about when the departed either comically injured or humiliated themselves, or both. You cry whenever the crying comes. Maybe it’s when your second cousin, Holly, hugs you so tight and uncomfortably long that you feel her faux-pearl necklace denting your forehead. Maybe it’s when you’re in the living room, where the open casket lay for three days, forcing yourself to look at the pale and gentle flesh of your uncle’s closed eyelids. And when you cry it’s uncensored. And you’re not alone.
It’s likely we all have a story something like this: a memory of bagpipes or a parade of back suits or kneeling so long that your feet fall asleep. I wonder if our memories could be the key to shaping queer funerals? Conquering and compiling the fine details like the unearthly quiet of a receiving room or how particularly buttery the sweets tasted. Or in my case how much the tattooist’s gun burned on my back.
I mourned my first queer death in a tattoo shop. There’s a scarlet-haired, rock-n-roll vixen on my back. She peeks out of my shirt collar and runs, right of my spine, down towards my hip. I clenched my fists (and my jaw and my butt cheeks) for nearly eight hours before the tattooist was finished.
She attracts a lot of attention, my tattoo. Especially from biker types who don’t have any qualms about touching a perfect stranger’s back. “Nice ink,” they say. Some have even gone as far as sliding my tank top to the side to get a better look. So when they ask, “What made you get that?” I feel a certain vindication when I tell them,
“It’s a memorial tattoo for a lover. She was nineteen when she died.”
The conversation usually ends there.
If I were to continue, I’d say I picked up a phone call from a friend sometime in the late fall of 1993. This friend and I hadn’t spoken since high school and she didn’t waste words asking how I was doing all the way out in Vancouver. Her news was swift as a kick: Val overdosed in her parent’s rec room. The “immediate-family-only” service had already passed. Her obituary had already run in the Niagara local papers.
“But I didn’t even know she moved home,” was the only response I could come up with. It was true, it must have been at least a year since I had seen her.
“Well,” my friend sighed, sounding impatient. “She came back to get clean.”
I went to my old dealer’s house—the one with the Confederate flag in the bay window and the stupid smoke that couldn’t find its way out of the living room—and I told everyone there. Some lay unmoving on the many ragged sofas jammed into the tiny apartment and slept through the news. Some had never met Val and shrugged in careless sympathy. I stuck around for the three or four people who called Val a friend—despite the fact that the second-hand freebase coke smoke was making me both ill and craving.
We told stories:
Remember how we used to cut class to swim in the gorge? Remember tobogganing on garbage-bag sleds at Sugar Bowl Park? Remember Black Label beer and our secret drinking spot near Devil’s Hole: how’d we manage not to kill ourselves climbing drunk down to those caves?
After we exhausted the tales of high school, the road trip sagas began. How Val could neither read a map nor stay awake at the wheel. But she could find a radio station, even in the butt-fuck-nowhere prairies where nothing but tall grass lives. And she knew the words to every classic rock song from Abracadabra to Ziggy Stardust.
From these stories I omitted the part when Val tucked my hands under her bomber jacket, held them against her bare belly until my fingers were warm in the November night. Our first kiss we had ducked between two parked cars in a bowling alley parking lot. I used to chew my lips raw daydreaming about when we’d kiss again. I noticed things about her that made me light-headed and confused, like she always wore such short skirts that if she sat on a vinyl chair she’d leave a faint sweat imprint of her thighs. I struck these tales from our impromptu memorial because Val and I were the only ones who knew. Now that she was dead, I was the only one.
The lack of “out” funerals has been going on long before I lost a loved one. In 1987 Cleve Jones and a group of San Franciscan GLBT activists began the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and enormous and ever-growing observance to the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. In the late 80s most of the people who died with AIDS, or more to the point, the gay men who died with AIDS, were denied a memorial service because funeral homes and cemeteries refused to take their remains. The Quilt was one of the only places where surviving loved ones could formally remember and grieve.
If you visit the aidsquilt.org website you’ll notice that the Names Project Foundation has honourably chosen to use the site as an educational tool and an affirming celebration of life. Click the “make a panel” button you can read over the encouraging guidelines to submitting to the quilt. Everything from hand-embroidery to spray paint art is welcome. The only specific requirement is the dimensions: six feet by three feet. If you didn’t know the history, it might not occur to you that this is the size of a human grave, heed to the time when we had to bury our dead in cloth coffin of our own creation.
As a kinky, genderqueer femme with a big mouth and, what you could call, a rather enterprising pussy, I am accustomed to having to create my own family, my home and community, and even myself. I am proud at the keen ability queer folks have to create personal, joyful somethings out of the nothings we’re all-too-often offered. I don’t know, however, if I can be proud that we’ve had to make our own coffins.
In addition to the tattoo shop, I’ve also grieved in gay bar bathrooms, in a New Orleans-bound van full of traveling burlesque dancers, and at a massage parlour staff room. This may sound delightfully renegade—but really, where else are we to hold a queer service? Annual memorials and days of remembrance have been an answer to this. Often housed at progressive university campuses or hosted by social justice groups these mass memorials allow us to remember our own. Or at least they try to . . .
In Spring 2003 I was working at a garishly decorated “rub-n-tug” next to the King George Highway. It was a bad month for business and some girls started working double shifts or hitting the stroll on Richards Street after the massage parlour closed for the night to keep from going broke. It is times like those that I was thankful to be a penniless homosexual artist that could live happily on a couple of weekly dates with regular clients.
Whenever business was slow the staff inevitably grew louder. We perfected our booty shake to blaring loud hip hop, smoked marijuana until we broke into giggle fits and killed hours bitching on the phone to other working girls at other massage parlours about how business was slow. So when I showed up to a dead silent workplace one day in May I knew something was wrong. I walked down the vacant hallway, past the row of empty massage studios, to the staff room where I found Summer with her head crumpled into her hands. The other girls all stared at the floor. Summer was no crybaby; she’s a high school drop out, single mom—babydaddy was murdered, her boyfriend was in provincial prison up North.
“Who died?” I asked, gravely.
“Shelby, fuck. You remember Shelby. Chinese. Tranny. Worked by the name of Ling. You know that older Asian girl. She was done all the way around.”
Done all the way around was Summer’s crude phrasing to note that Shelby was a post-operative transsexual. I did remember her. She worked downtown along side the high track, big money girls. Summer said the word on Shelby was she was cut into pieces and left in a shopping cart outside a laundromat.
For the days that followed, we watched the local news and brought the papers to work. We didn’t hear anything about Shelby; no obituary and no funeral—it was as if Shelby had never existed. I was left wondering how it happened. I couldn’t help but think that Shelby was targeted because of gender. Gender, race, and occupation, I was certain, were the reasons for the lack of media coverage. After about a week we decided to light a candle and say a prayer in the staff room and move on.
Six months later, I was given a flyer for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Each year there is a memorial to remember the transgender people across North America and the world that have died. Multiple cites have been observing the Transgender Day of Remembrance since 1999. Over the years it has grown from small DIY gatherings to well-publicized and attended events. I wondered if Shelby would be among those being remembered: I prayed that she would be.
I invited Summer to come with me and mourn. She eyed the memorial’s flyer, with its activist jargon, and saw that it was being held at a university campus, “Not my thing,” she said and handed the flyer back to me.
I went alone. As I entered the crowded campus classroom my chest tightened. There were many familiar faces; college queers, forefathers and mothers of local trans activism, there was even a member of parliament. More people than seating space, they stood along the back wall, crouched in front of the speaker’s table. Seeing them all suddenly made Shelby’s death more real. Overwhelmed, I squatted on the newly carpeted floor close to the exit.
I had a short eulogy that I wanted to share. I wanted to let people know Shelby was a strong woman, with all respect she was a tough-ass bitch. From what I knew of her, she never hid nor compromised who she was. It couldn’t have been easy working alongside of pimps and rows nineteen-year-old girls for hire. I also wanted to invite anyone in the room who knew Shelby to share a story or two.
I did not get an opportunity to say any of this. The memorial quickly turned into a political meeting, a soundboard for topics such as surgery funding, the recently disbanded gender clinic, and trans inclusion in the Bill of Human Rights. A short documentary about San Francisco’s Day of Remembrance was screened. I remember growing anxious at about this time; I watched one of the speakers struggle with the borrowed film projector and began to wonder when we were going to read the names. When were we going to remember our dead?
I was visibly fidgeting when the list of names were finally brought out and passed around. Each person present took one name from the list. One by one the names of the deceased and circumstances of the deaths were read out loud, mostly women’s names and mostly violent deaths. I heard someone say, “My name is Shelby Tom, I worked as a prostitute in Vancouver, Canada. I was forty years old when I was murdered, allegedly by a client. My body was found in a shopping cart in North Vancouver,”
A loud wail escaped my lips and I buried my head into my legs to prevent more from coming out. No one else was crying out loud, so I figured the appropriate thing to do was keep my head down until I felt my jeans grow damp with tears. I was still crying when an abrupt announcement was made that time had run out, the university was closing, and we needed to leave.
Campus security ushered us out the doors. I moved along in a slow, dizzy line as people looked at me with pity. I believe a woman asked if I’d be all right. I believe she had a soft-butch haircut and a bike helmet and maybe even was someone I knew. When she hugged me I held my breath, determined not to cry all over her. I was embarrassed of my uncontainable and seemingly peerless emotion. I have not since been to a Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Make two lists. One of queers you’ve know who have died. Another of queer funerals you’ve attended. How do they compare? As you probably gathered, my first list is a whole lot longer. What I’ve learned about queer funerals are—they don’t exist.
Worst-case scenario, we are forced back into the closet at our funerals. At best, our deaths become political, platforms for public education and human rights lobbying. They become measures the work that still needs to be done in this world. And once again, I am proud to be a part of a community that in the face of death rolls up its sleeves and says we’ve got a job to do. At the same time, at risk of sounding enfeebled, it’s just not fair. How truly sad it is to not be afforded a funeral!
So I have no expert advice on “how to bury your dead” because I’ve never actually done it. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t imagined an old country frame house filled with queer folk who have gathered to properly grieve. Maybe you can imagine it too. Picture mac jackets and faux-fur and good leather hung in the mudroom. You come in through the back door because family never comes through the front, and you are family. You can hold your partner’s hand the whole time, until your fingers grow numb if you want to. The stories shared here are uncensored, including the ones that take place in bathroom stalls or parked cars. Photos, taken at Pride Parade or Faerie Camp or the bar, make their rounds around the room. When you are handed the photo of yourself—you with the loved one you came to mourn—stare down at it until the colours start to blur and you find yourself whispering, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
And when you’re ready, go bravely into the living room where the casket lay. Take as long as you need, this moment is yours to say goodbye. Imagine this last look. Imagine hair and hands, eyelashes and lower lip and all the memories that a body holds to it.
Our lives are worth the fruit baskets and raisin cakes. We are worth cala lilies and pink roses. We’re worth stone or scattering ashes. Hymn and song. Wine and ritual. Surely we’ve all earned hours of storytelling. And most certainly our lives are worth the tears.
Republished with permission from Second Person Queer (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008).
Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker and performance artist based in Vancouver. She is the author of the novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), editor of the Fist of the Spider Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008) and co-editor of With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005).
I really appreciated this writing. Thank you for sharing it.
Just as beautiful now as it was the first time I heard it.
Wow, Amber. Thank you.
My best friend, big sister, unrequited love of my life, strong, proud, and out trans woman, 1st Lt. in the US Air Force, and advocate for LGBTQ federal employees, Stacy, passed away in May of 2011. Perhaps we didn’t have a queer funeral, but her family begrudgingly accepted her, having not taken the time or having gotten to know who she really was, and buried her with her proper name.
At her wake, it took time for me to have the nerve to approach the casket. I needed to, but I could not. Above the casket there were masses of flowers, and in the middle, the biggest bunch of all, a sign that had obviously been kludged together, “Beloved Son Daughter.” It was so fitting, and it was so perfect. I briefly said hello to one of her brothers who I knew, and then went to the casket.
Truth be told, Stacy looked awful. She looked nothing like herself, and I wanted to turn and run, but I couldn’t. As friends, as sisters, we make the same vows, if not vocally, to each other that for better or for worse, we will be there for each other, until death do us part. I cried. I cried so hard my body was being wracked by the grief, and I was shaking. I felt an arm wrap around my shoulders, and through the tears I recognized her brother who I had spoken to earlier. I leaned on his shoulder and continued to cry. Gently, he guided me to a big comfy chair in the front and sat with me for a few minutes, trying to calm me down, when I should’ve been the one doing so for him. We were family.
Her church – Catholic – refused to provide a priest for the service for her. He would’ve used it to strip her of her name, gender, and everything she’d worked so hard for. Instead, the Knights of Columbus bravely volunteered to memorialize her and lead the service, and truly it was beautifully done, and wonderfully appropriate. He acknowledged the son, brother, and man she stayed for so long, while maintaining her gender and name, reminding people that without her to speak for herself, who are we to question her life?
At the after party – Stacy had insisted just weeks earlier that if she ever died, she didn’t want anyone to be sad or cry, she said she wanted a fucking party. She got what she wanted in that sense, but she also got what she’d always wanted. Respect, recognition, and love. Her family and friends were together, laughing, crying, and bonding over everything she meant to us. There were no bitter battles or corrections over names or gender pronouns, we knew what we meant, and everyone else did too.
At the LGBT Center here in NY, many knew her and cared deeply for her, so we held an impromptu gathering there, bringing out around 20 of her friends, mostly on the trans spectrum. We shared stories, we cried, and mostly, we remembered.
We all knew how lucky we were, lucky to have known her and lucky to have her family accept who she was.
Within the next two weeks, I would go on to get a tattoo for her – a blue butterfly – how she loved butterflies – with her name underneath in a beautiful script. I wear it proudly, and I will never forget who she was and still is to me, for she is now my guardian angel, and I know she watches over me every day.
“With your name tatooed into my skin
Because of the shame I associate with vulnerability
I am numbing myself completely
Can you hear me right now
I watched your mother bury you today
With tears in her eyes
It wasn’t her words that shook me
But the resemblence you shared”
– Against Me! – Because of the Shame
“Now, we went walking in the rain, talking
About the pain that from the world we hid
Now there ain’t nobody, nowhere, nohow
Gonna ever understand me the way you did
Maybe you’ll be out there on that road
Somewhere in some bus or train
Traveling along in some motel room
There’ll be a radio playing and you’ll hear me sing this song
Well, if you do, you’ll know I’m thinking of you
And all the miles in between
And I’m just calling you one last time
Not to change your mind, but just to say I miss you, baby
Good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean”
– Bruce Springsteen – Bobby Jean