Death + the Law Grief + Mourning

Disenfranchised Grief

‘An Invisible Loss’: Gays and Lesbians Find Comfort Hard to Come by after Partner’s Death
The New Mexican (August 28, 2010)

The Santa Fe New Mexican published a feature story last week about the often difficult and uneasy situations created when gays and lesbians are faced with the death of their partner. In so many cases, the surviving partner is not considered part of the family and is intentionally or unintentionally branded with outsider status. He or she is left out of decision-making and grieving rituals before, during and after the death of a life partner. Grief over the loss of a loved one is often compounded by a lack of understanding and/or compassion on the part of the partner’s family, which then may extend to an oblivious or even hostile larger community.

John wrote this past May about the extra end-of-life legal hoops for same-sex partners in Minnesota. Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have given same-sex partners in long term relationships the legal right to the other partner’s dead body for funeral arrangements and final disposition of the remains.

Several couples are profiled in the New Mexican article. Take the instance of Tom Rotella’s partner:

When Tom Rotella’s partner died in California in 1998, his family recognized Rotella as the decision-maker. But after Rotella’s employer, the Los Angeles Public Library, announced the death in a newsletter, someone started subscribing to pornographic magazines in Rotella’s name, and there was a “mass exodus” of friends, Rotella said. “I was alone.” A contingent of colleagues did come to the funeral to support Rotella, he said, but his own parents declined, ostensibly to spare his father from learning that his son was gay. “That killed me,” he said.

Or take the case of Lynne Roberts:

Lynne Roberts’ partner fell seriously ill in 1988 after they had been together about eight years in New York City. The hospital waited for the woman’s ex-husband to sign papers allowing treatment, although Roberts was the one who brought her partner to the emergency room. While Roberts had been invited to all the family gatherings, “I was put on the periphery,” Roberts said. The family never called her with reports on her partner’s condition, and when the woman eventually died (the two were separated at the time) the family didn’t call Roberts or invite her to the cremation or burial.

These cases are disturbing and unfortunate. Of course, it’s not like this for every gay or lesbian couple dealing with the death of their partner. There are many compassionate and understanding family members, hospitals and funeral homes out there that do not discriminate or create difficult situations for same-sex partners. However, there is still a long way to go—legal and cultural—in allowing all those in the LGBT community the same rights and dignity as heterosexuals when it comes to issues of human compassion in the face of death, dying, grief and mourning. Last year’s Academy Award winning movie, A Single Man, based on the novel of same name by Chris Isherwood, dealt with one man’s grief after losing his partner in a car accident. The film is set in the early 1960s, a time when being closeted was much more a fact of life for so may gay men and women, especially since the 1969 Stonewall riots had not even yet occurred. And while much progress has been made in the intervening years, there is still a long way to go.

There are books that deal specifically with the legal, familial and cultural hurdles of same-sex partners dealing with the loss of a loved one. I’ve listed a few here.

A Legal Guide for Lesbian & Gay Couples. Denis Clifford, Frederick Hertz, Emily Doskow. 2010

Partnered Grief: When Gay and Lesbian Partners Grieve. Harold Ivan Smith, Joy Johnson. 2008

Loss of a Life Partner. Carolyn Ambler Walter. 2003

Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of a Partner. Michael Shernoff. 1997

Grief + Mourning Suicide

Soldier Suicides on the Rise


ContentImageIt’s unclear yet whether these tough economic times are driving up the suicide rate in America. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on suicide among the general population is from 2006. Even if we had more current data to work with, there is a lot of extrapolation necessary to make that connection. However, I think it’s certainly a possibility, given the utter desperation of so many people out of work and out of hope.

One thing we do know is that American soldiers, either still on active duty or those returning home, are facing serious mental health issues, some of which ultimately end in suicide. CNN has featured content lately about the increasing rates of soldier suicide. One story addresses the impact that multiple wars have had on enlisted and veteran personnel. Another discusses the “high risk behavior” that contributes to the rising Army suicide rate. Despite increased efforts by the Department of Defense to address the issue in the last several years, a successful coordinated effort and outcomes are still lacking.

Last year, Congress created the Joint Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces. The findings of their report were released yesterday and concluded, in part, that:

“The years since 2002 have placed unprecedented demands on our armed forces and military families. Military operational requirements have risen significantly, and manning levels across the services remain too low to meet the ever-increasing demand,” said the report, released Tuesday. “The cumulative effects of all these factors are contributing significantly to the increase in the incidence of suicide.”

It goes on to say that:

“The Task Force also found that occasionally leadership environments (usually at the junior supervisory and sometimes at the mid-grade level) resulted in discriminatory and humiliating treatment of Service Members who responsibly sought professional services for emotional, psychological, moral, ethical, or spiritual matters, which not only deters help seeking but also reinforces the stigma.”

The NY Times recently ran a story and video about the inner workings of the suicide prevention hotline at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Canandaguia, NY. It is a powerful piece of reportage chronicling the desperate multiple life and death moments happening every day at the call center. The piece is about the struggles of the staff answering the calls and the returning men and women for whom calling the hotline may be a last resort.

While suicide statistics are kept for active-duty service members, no reliable data exists for veterans. The NY Times article reports that “…..estimates, while not universally accepted, seem alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans account for about one in five of the more than 30,000 suicides committed in the United States each year.”

There are more CDC suicide statistics and prevention info here.

What can be done? What should be done about this growing problem? I don’t have the answers, but here are a few thoughts. First and foremost, active-duty and returning service members need access to consistent and fully-funded mental health services. Help needs to be readily available and not tied up in bureaucratic red tape. For vets, calling a suicide prevention hotline is a temporary BandAid, not a fully developed action plan going forward. Vets suffering from PTSD and depression need to receive the same level of help found in physical rehabilitation programs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There need to be discussions around erasing the stigma of asking for help. Ultimately, it’s the war(s) that are to blame for soldier suicide. Yes, some of those soldiers may enter the service with pre-existing conditions that the presence of war only exacerbates, but war can never be good for the mind, the body or the soul. Eliminating the “trigger” is one step in the right direction. Obviously, there are no simple answers or solutions.

I recently saw an article in American Libraries that got me thinking as it relates to my own work. It’s about how New York Public Library’s telephone reference line, ASK NYPL, has developed a policy in handling calls from suicidal individuals and law enforcement agencies who respond to them. You can read the full article here. It inspired me to see what, if any, policy we currently have in place at my library. The outreach work I do is usually concerned with promoting the programs, services and collections of my library and enticing various demographic groups who may not be using the library to do so. One of our priorities right now is serving as “a resource during these tough economic times.” But if outreach is “reaching out”, then it seems that this may also be a way to reach people who need help, something that we are already doing every day at the library.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, please talk to someone. The National Suicide Prevention Helpline is 1-800-273-8255. If you are an active-duty member or a veteran, dial the same number and press 1 to be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for Veterans.

Death + the Law Death + the Web Death Ethics Monuments + Memorials

Dead Netizen

There’s been much talk of late about what happens to your online social connections, not to mention your email and all the other ways you exist virtually, after you die. With Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and others there’s you and then there’s virtual you.

As more and more people join the virtual you ranks, the implementation of protocols and practices become necessary when the real you dies.

Yesterday, Twitter announced their new policy for deceased users. Prior to this, they had no policy in place.

In July, the NY Times published a story about what happens to your Facebook account after you die. Facebook’s policies, specifically the ability to “memorialize” someone’s Facebook page, have been in place since October, 2009.

But one size does not fit all as policies and practices vary greatly among the various email and social network providers, making it a confusing maze for those trying to navigate through it after a loved-one’s death. Various sites attempt to sort it all out. But, as technology changes and new social networking and email sites emerge, so too will protocols need to change. In writing this post, I ran across a post discussing the legal ramifications of deceased users and their “digital property”. It seems future lawyers are trying to understand it too—perhaps all the better to eventually litigate it, I imagine.

Think about this: a typical scenario might be a person who has a Facebook, Twitter and Gmail account—and probably a work email too—although I imagine most family member’s are less concerned with work email and understand that companies and organizations have exclusive rights to their employee’s email accounts. Ultimately, however, your virtual fingerprints are everywhere. Gaining access after your death—should someone need or want to—can be potentially confusing and frustrating for everyone. And what if it goes completely against your last wishes? Do you want your family and possibly friends, noodling around in the remains of your virtual life?

All sort of websites have emerged to help you figure out these existential questions and more. Some of the sites, like, are for the living to remember and memorialize the dead. Some sites, like, are virtual vaults that keep usernames and passwords safe until you die and the info is then released to selected friends and family members. And still other sites, like, allow you to craft out messages while you are still alive that will then only be released to friends and family upon your death.

Despite the best efforts of Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and others to address the post-mortem needs of their members and the people who survive them, it’s still an ungainly, swirling, complex mass of legal, moral and ethical issues. It seems progress is being made, but I think it will always be a messy business the more you and virtual you become intertwined and perhaps ultimately, indistinguishable.

Afterlife Death + Humor Death + Technology Defying Death

Head of the Household


There was an interesting article in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine about cryonics; or more to the point, cryonocists and the people who love them. The article is fascinating for the fact that it delves not so much into the science informing cryonic preservation (as our last cryonics post did) but rather, about how differing beliefs about the practice in the context of marriage can be problematic. It’s he said/she said taken to a whole new level. Ba-da-bing!

Peggy and Robin, the couple primarily featured in the piece is especially interesting because wife Peggy (the unenamored one) is herself a hospice care worker, well-versed in end-of-life issues but vehemently opposed to husband Robin’s plans for the final disposition of his head after death. Peggy finds the quest “an act of cosmic selfishness.” Robin, an economics professor, is “a deep thinker, most at home in thought experiments” but sensitive enough to understand the potential abandonment issues. Apparently, this type of discord has a name—and could be confused for the punch line of an Andy Capp cartoon. According to the article:

Peggy’s reaction might be referred to as an instance of the “hostile-wife phenomenon,” as discussed in a 2008 paper by Aschwin de Wolf, Chana de Wolf and Mike Federowicz.“From its inception in 1964,” they write, “cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists.”

Even though the article is intended as a serious look at the marital strife that can be caused by deeply held beliefs about death, life and what comes after, I couldn’t help but think about Woody Allen movies and imagined New Yorker cartoons—and my own marriage. While my husband has no plans for cryonic preservation, his vague plan involving the reanimation of his skeleton, a large glass vitrine and the gerryrigged ability to emit recorded voice clips with the push of a button, has generated much discussion and debate in our marriage. My husband is a bit of a joker, but in this he is dead serious (pun intended). All I can say is, I love you honey, but I hope I die first.

Death + Popular Culture Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials

Plain or Fancy?

Seems like funerals or memorial services are either getting simpler or more complex these days. Green burials and simple home rituals are gaining momentum, but so are high end funeral extravaganzas that spare no expense. In an article that appeared in yesterday’s U.K.-based Independent newspaper, “the rise of the distinctly unconventional celebrity send-off is proof of a distinct shift in British attitudes to the final journey of the dead.”

Enter Lori MacKellar, who has been labeled a “celebrity undertaker”. Ms. MacKellar, a former contemporary art publicist, has been responsible for some of the recent funerary fetes of British celebs and luminaries such as Malcolm McLaren (punk rock visionary) and Michael Wojas (legendary barman). While she takes umbrage with such a title, Ms. MacKellar sees herself as performing a very important role in the the creation of lasting memories for the deceased family and friends. As she puts it:

“The departure point is always what the family want to do. In the case of Malcolm McLaren, the family had very clear ideas about what sort of funeral they wanted and we helped to arrange it. The bus was provided by a friend and there were so many ways that people were able to express themselves. We were a little bit worried that at one point some fans might give the ‘punk salute’ by spitting towards the hearse. Of course, that never happened and people were also very respectful. I think the family were pleased with how it went.

If Michael Jackson’s memorial service here stateside is any indication of the lengths the rich and famous will go to to ensure a lasting legacy for time immemorial, then I’m not sure what is. The entire city of Los Angeles was practically shut down last July on the day of the memorial service at the Staples Center. The city racked up (and was criticized for) $1.3 million dollars in expenses on that day to pay all the associated costs of such a large event, including but not limited to, police officers, sanitation workers and traffic control. A few weeks ago, nearing the one year anniversary of MJ’s death, Anschutz Entertainment Group and the estate of Michael Jackson have agreed to provide $1.3 million to the city of Los Angeles to help cover the cost of last year’s memorial.

Ultimately, a funeral or memorial service is a reflection of the life of the deceased. So whether plain or fancy, the ways in which we honor, celebrate and remember the dead is really a mirror on our collective values and ideologies. What will YOUR memorial or funeral say about you?

Death + the Web Death Ethics

Legacy for Hire

A recent post by Idle Words blog caught my eye. It’s about the unscrupulous practices of, the back end machinery behind obituary notices in newspapers across the country, including, but not limited to, the venerable NY Times.

Idle Words did a little research (which Boing Boing then posted) to uncover exactly what’s going on with Legacy—because their mode of operation is less than transparent. At issue is how their online guest books work and the deceptive and manipulative way money changes hands in the process. The process is this: you sign the guest book after which you are greeted with a warning that states that the guest book will expire in a little over a month. You can make sure this doesn’t happen by paying $29 to keep it up for a year, or go for the eternity package and pay $79 to keep the guest book alive “in perpetuity.”

While that might seem a bit crass, that’s not really the issue. Through some investigation, Idle Words discovered that creating an online death notice is a less than forthright when it comes to the money. At no time in the process do they tell you what the charges are (from $79). For that, you need to drill down into the small print back at (in this case) the NY Times rate sheet page—outside of the confines of the obituary creation stage. I dare you to even find where the rate sheet info is because I can tell you it’s under deep cover—and I’m a librarian!

Says Idle Words:

[The] site takes money from bereaved people without disclosing what it’s billing them, gambling on the fact that they’re probably too preoccupied to care. Whether or not this kind of thing is legal, it is completely unethical. Even an undertaker who has upsold you on everything from coffin to funeral buffet has to show you a number before you sign on the dotted line.

I applaud Idle Words for looking into Legacy’s practices. Maybe this exposure will shame them into changing their “business model”.

Death + Technology Suicide

Overtime and Under Stress

“Maybe this spate of suicides will also serve us as a wake-up call,” he said in an interview last week. “We realize we must do a better job.” —Louis Woo, a high-ranking Foxconn executive

The NY Times has written another article about the Foxconn suicides. This follows a second pay raise by the company this past Sunday and sheds more light on the incredible number of hours many factory workers are clocking. According to the article, the first suicide, Ma Xiangqian, racked up 286 hours of work time (including 112 hours of overtime) in the month before he died—that’s three times the legal limit. And the pay? The equivalent of $1 per hour.

Now, Foxconn has instituted a new policy: stay with the company for 3 months and your monthly salary will be bumped to $300—more than double what workers were getting paid 3 weeks ago. Foxconn’s management and the companies doing business with them (namely, Apple, Dell, etc.) realize they are under a lot of public scrutiny about their labor practices. There is talk of an ongoing investigation—and I hope it is true. But the cynic in me also wonders how much of it is really a CYA campaign. I hope the former, but I suspect the latter.

All this has gotten me thinking about the sociological and cultural implications and differences between East and West when it comes to this type of death. I did a little searching for books on the subject of suicide in China specifically and in Asian society more generally. If you’d like to explore things for yourself, here are some titles you might be interested in. As always, check your local library’s collection or take advantage of interlibrary loan.

Suicide and Justice: A Chinese Perspective (Routledge Contemporary China Series). Fei Wu. 2009

Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity. Christian Baudelot. 2008.

Suicide in Asia: Causes and Prevention. Paul S.F. Yip. 2009

Death + Technology Suicide

Foxconn Raises Salaries

Today’s NY Times reports that Foxconn will raise employee’s salaries by 33 percent. Assembly line workers will now go from the equivalent of approximately $132 per month to $176 per month. A week earlier, company chairman Terry Gou, had promised to improve conditions at the factory and to quell the rash of suicides plaguing the company, denying there is a correlation between worker’s salaries and the suicides. According to the Times:

The company, which is based in Taiwan and employs more than 800,000 workers in China, has denied that the suicides were work-related or above the national average, saying instead that they were the result of social ills and personal problems of young, migrant workers. Foxconn said Wednesday that the decision to raise salaries was not a direct response to the suicides.

For some insight and a bit of the backstory, check out this audio clip from the folks over at Future Tense from last week. It’s about 45 seconds in.

Afterlife Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture

Deathly Art at DIA

Anubis, God of Death

Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, has joined the ever-growing population of deathly artworks at the Denver International Airport (DIA).

Denver’s local ABC affiliate, KMGH, reports that horrified travelers are now greeted by the 26-foot tall statue upon arrival in the main terminal.

Anubis is being erected in anticipation of the Denver Art Museum’s upcoming King Tut exhibit. The jackal-headed god now joins Mustang, also known as the “Bluecifer” or “Demon Horse” statue by Luis Jimenez and Leo Tanguma’s Nazi-inspired two part mural entitled Children of the World Dream Peace.


DIA has garnered much praise and criticism over the years for its extensive public art program which has featured a wide variety of paintings, murals and sculptures, in addition to various commemorative plaques and parquetry.

Children of the World Dream Peace has probably garnered the most attention, inspiring multiple conspiracy theories about its message and meanings. With its gun-wielding, sword-brandishing, gas-masked soldier figure, you may be able to see why. The giant blue mustang with the glowing red eyes and popping black veins has also struck fear into the hearts of travelers—although more for its ominous presence—than any overtly death-inspired message. Although, the fact that the artist, Luis Jimenez, DIED from being crushed under the sculpture when it fell on him, may also add to the creep-out factor.

But now Denverites and weary travelers can gaze upon and contemplate the newest addition to the airport—Anubis—the Egyptian god of the dead and embalming. According to Ancient Egypt Online:

Anubis is the greek version of his name. The Egyptians knew him as Anpu (or Inpu). Anubis was an extremely ancient deity whose name appears in the oldest mastabas of the Old Kingdom and the Pyramid Texts as a guardian and protector of the dead. He was originally a god of the underworld, but became associated specifically with the embalming process and funeral rites. His name is from the same root as the word for a royal child, “inpu”. However, it is also closely related to the word “inp” which means “to decay”, and one versions of his name (Inp or Anp) more closely resembles that word. As a result it is possible that his name changed slightly once he was adopted as the son of the King, Osiris. He was known as “Imy-ut” (“He Who is In the Place of Embalming”), “nub-tA-djser” (“lord of the scared land”).

The interpretation and criticism of art is a heady business. Assigning meaning is never cut and dried—even when the artist him/herself explains the creation. Despite observations by sanctioned or unappointed art critics, we are all ultimately left to our own devices in this process. Much as in death, it’s a solo trip. So if you have visited or will visit the DIA and have any extreme feelings one way or another about their art collection and its possible deathly implications, drop us a line and give us your insights.


Rash of Suicides at China’s Foxconn

Taiwanese-owned computer and electronics manufacturing giant, Foxconn, is drawing criticism for its recent spate of suicides. At present, 10 people have committed suicide within the last year—with one of those deaths occurring just hours after company Chairman Terry Gou, bowed in apology over the deaths.

Previously, we have reported on spates of suicides in posts on France Telecom and suicide hotspots like Japan’s Cliffs of Tojimbo and China’s Yangtze River Bridge. Although it’s not totally clear whether the Foxconn suicides can be attributed to copycat behavior among employees, one thing that can be fact-checked is the average number of suicides per year in China’s population as a whole.

According to 2004 World Health Organization estimates, China’s annual suicide rate is 16.9 deaths per 100,000 people. Foxconn employs approximately 800,000 employees. So, one can argue that statistically speaking, the number of recent suicides is actually less than the national average. But due to the quick succession of deaths and the fact that they all share the same employer, one has to ask what role, if any, their workplace played in their deaths. This is what investigators both in China and the U.S. are now attempting to unravel.

Death + Humor Death + the Law

From Bea-yond the Grave

Bea Arthur Continues Her Activism in Death
Maria Elena Fernandez, LATimesBlogs (April 22, 2010)

Due to a special stipulation in her will, deceased comedic actress Bea Arthur is speaking out against animal cruelty.

As part of their McCruelty campaign, PETA is using images of Ms. Arthur, a.k.a. Maude, Dorothy, et. al. in new ads appearing in the Chicago Tribune.

I’m Rolling Over in My Grave!Just like many non-profits, PETA offers a “planned giving” option. According to, “a planned gift is any major gift, made in lifetime or at death as part of a donor’s overall financial and/or estate planning.”

The world of planned giving is an area of estate planning and charity and philanthropic work that is sometimes overshadowed by the more splashy details of a will involving heirs and final disposition preferences. There are various organizations out there in the planned giving universe such as the stuffy-sounding Partnership for Philanthropic Planning. But in exploring a bit out on the web, we discover the lighter side of the biz.

The planned giving marketers have failures as well. The number one tip given by is to “Stop telling your prospect you’re waiting for him to die.” The fix? Tell ’em it’s all about immortality. That’s what the Ayn Rand Institute seems to be trying to do with their Atlantis Legacy Program. One Atlantis donor put it this way: “I like the idea of my money continuing to fight for Ayn Rand’s ideas into the indefinite future, even after I’m gone. In a way, it’s a form of immortality: to be funding, beyond my lifetime, a world-changing institution.”

And so, we come full circle. In the immortal words of Bea Arthur, “Now this goes to the grave with you – I hate cheesecake!” (This was copied from, a dubious quotations site with little attributable documentation, and despite my official librarian duty to cite my sources, I’m gonna let this one slide.)

Afterlife cremation Grief + Mourning

Fire, Beauty and Death in Bali

What does a cremation sound like? Most of us in the Western world would be hard-pressed to answer that question. Cremation is something that takes place out of sight, and for most, out of mind. The fiery furnaces are lit, the body is rolled in and a few hours later, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is sterile, it is discreet and it is solitary.

But if you could hear it, what would it sound like? If you could see it, what would it look like? And, indeed, what would it smell like? Seattle visual and sound artist Jesse Paul Miller and his wife Linda Peschong, a photographer, visited southeast Asia in the early part of 2008. Planning to stay only until June, they were able to extend their stay in Bali an extra month. July in Bali is cremation season. And to their delight, the largest of such public ceremonies involving cremation of royal family members was about to begin.

Through field recordings taken by Jesse, you can experience the aural intensity of the cremation ceremony itself. The rich, sonic landscape features crowd noises, gamelans, drums and chanting as the procession takes place. Have a listen!