This post first ran in November 2009. We’re linking back to it again today in anticipation of this week’s US Supreme Court cases regarding same-sex marriage. Most people do no realize the legal obstacles same-sex partners often face when attempting to claim their partner’s corpse given the lack of either a marriage license or any statutory recognition of the relationship. This 2009 story from Rhode Island demonstrates all the issues. See our section on same-sex partners for more information. Two final notes. Donald Carcieri is no longer Rhode Island’s Governor and in January 2010 the RI Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto.
This post first ran in November 2009. We encourage you to check out this post again, after President Obama’s recently announced support for same-sex marriage. Most people do no realize the legal obstacles same-sex partners often face when attempting to claim their partner’s corpse given the lack of either a marriage license or any statutory recognition of the relationship. This 2009 story from Rhode Island demonstrates all the issues. See our section on same-sex partners for more information. Two final notes. Donald Carcieri is no longer Rhode Island’s Governor and in January 2010 the RI Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto.
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.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has now weighed in on the veto with an Editorial. I totally agree with what the Editorial Board says and with its critique of Pawlenty’s rationale for vetoing the bill.
Here is the Editorial’s key section:
“Currently a person can, by executing a will, designate who shall be empowered to control final disposition of his or her remains,” Pawlenty wrote in his letter explaining his veto. “This bill therefore addresses a nonexistent problem.”
That’s not the reality, say some who have lived through the death of a partner, only to face technical entanglements that kept them from carrying out their final wishes.
“We had done what we thought was everything we could possibly do,” said Tim Reardon of Golden Valley, recalling the legal preparations he and his partner Eric Mann made before Mann’s death in 2006. “The myth is that you can legally take care of all that stuff.”
Reardon’s inability to carry out Mann’s wishes, until his partner’s understanding parents intervened, is an example of why the bill is needed. “To have to hear, after your partner is dead and you’re absolutely physically and emotionally spent, somebody say, ‘I’m sorry, your relationship is not recognized,’ it strikes this deep kind of disbelief. It’s just such a crazy violation of our rights, our dignity, of our respect.”
It’s heartless to put our fellow citizens through such heartache. And it’s unfair to make same-sex couples hire attorneys to get the same rights as married couples.
Governor Pawlenty’s veto is part of a larger battle that will lose the war. Marriage and all its benefits, including the right to a deceased, same-sex partner’s corpse, is on the horizon.
Oh Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota. I know that you think you’ve got a chance at the 2012 Republican Presidential ticket but, alas, you’ll be disappointed. In all honesty, I don’t know who will be the GOP candidate but it won’t be you, that much I know. So instead of helping gay and lesbian Minnesotans in committed, long term relationships cope with a partner’s death you go ahead and veto a completely practical, sensible bill.
I am referring here to Minnesota Senate Bill No. 341 which, among other things, would allow same-sex domestic partners to claim their dead partner’s body in order to make funeral arrangements. Here is the bill’s language:
Subd. 2. Determination of right to control and duty of disposition.
(a) The right to control the disposition of the remains of a deceased person, including the location and conditions of final disposition, unless other directions have been given by the decedent pursuant to subdivision 1, vests in, and the duty of final disposition of the body devolves upon, the following in the order of priority listed:
The list includes 1.) Wills and Legal Instruments 2.) Spouses 3.) Domestic Partners and other groups such as children. It is the third group, domestic partners, which Bill 341 added and it is the reason Governor Pawlenty (by his own admission) vetoed it. Pawlenty’s rationale was that since same-sex couples can establish Wills or Health Directives in which a same-sex partner is named as the sole decision maker then the law was unnecessary.
In a sense Governor Pawlenty is correct but only so far as this means same-sex couples have to jump through a hoop that married straight couples do not. Furthermore, this law would have made the entire funeral arrangement process and final disposition of the dead body a lot simpler. As the law currently stands in Minnesota, any same-sex couple without explicit legal documents stating the couples’ final disposition wishes faces a potential legal challenge from next of kin. If the family of a gay man or lesbian woman does not like or even acknowledge the same-sex partner then that person can be legally excluded from the entire funeral.
This is a situation that funeral directors confronted quite a bit during the 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It’s a terrible scenario in which the body in the casket can literally become a dividing line. The Minnesota Senate Bill would have gone a long way towards simplifying how same-sex couples can claim their deceased partner’s body.
One day, and it will be in my own lifetime, these legal forms of discrimination and the individuals who supported them will look absolutely barbaric. This much I also know.
So there you go Governor Pawlenty. You’re not going to get the GOP nomination and you’re acting like a completely intolerant, insensitive brute. But at least you’re in good company: the Governor of Rhode Island did the same exact thing last November and he too will never be President of the United States of America.
While specific rites and rituals vary across cultures and time, anyone who has been to a few memorial services or even seen them on TV understands funerals. We may not know how to feel about death or the deceased, but we do know how we’re supposed to act.
A funeral, after all, is a performance — and I don’t mean that snidely. There are common and expected settings, props and costumes, with overlapping scenes but well-defined acts. We have roles to play and lines to say and even when we screw up (can’t stop crying! ack, can’t start!), we don’t. Funerals are flexible. Flubs are forgiven. Things mean Stuff, and if all goes as planned, including the unplanned, people walk away changed.
Because we all “get” funerals and know what we’re supposed to get out of them, it’s no small wonder the funeral performance has been subverted and co-opted as a means of social commentary and to express and influence public opinion. Mock funerals have been used throughout history as vehicles for satire, issue awareness, protest and social change.
On November 14, the citizens of Venice held a mock funeral for their city and its dying population, currently below 60,000. The 1993 total was a healthier 74,000; in 1971, the city topped 108,300. The mock funeral on Saturday was an effort to promote awareness of the problem and invigorate Venetian pride.
Take it away, Al Jazeera!
The day before, copping the same culturally understood form, students at Florida State University held a funeral for gay rights and marriage equality complete with a eulogy, funeral procession and mock burial with opening and closing remarks. The demonstration was in reaction to the recent overturn of gay marriage rights in Maine.
Lastly, just before Halloween, a sports bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin, working with a radio station, erected a coffin containing a Brett Favre effigy, encapsulating the “he’s dead to us” emotion Packer fans have felt after quarterback Favre temporarily quit the NFL then signed on with the neighboring arch nemesis, the Vikings. The initial spectacle attracted 500 mourners for the procession, including hearses and pall-bearers, while others came to view the “corpse” over the next couple of days, on display in the corner of the bar.
Mean spirited? Um… yes? The radio station allegedly received death threats for the incident. But satire-too-far aside, as well as the abiding silliness of the whole thing, devoted Packer fans have felt genuine sadness, loss and betrayal about Favre’s defection. Some mourners brought pictures, football cards, and other mementos to place inside the coffin. It’s all part of the gag, but it’s also a familiar way to deal with grief and work through the frustration and pain of someone who is dead — or someone who you wished was, or who feels dead to you anyway.
These three examples are just within the last few weeks; numerous other instances exist, such as mock funerals for the First Amendment or symbolic funerals for aborted fetuses (this latter being slightly different in tone, though still enacted as a form of protest and demonstration). Though varying in intention, mock funerals invariably capture attention, sometimes shockingly. Death as metaphor is one thing; to see it enacted and performed can be moving, disturbing or even infuriating — and because of our cultural familiarity, it works. It’s easy to know what’s going on and how we’re supposed to feel about it — even if we disagree with the issue of contention.
I hoped to do more research on this, to get some historical context and cultural studies input. I found next to nothing on this topic, which surprises me. “Mock funeral” doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page (gasp!). Please comment if you know of any books or articles about this — or give me a grant or book advance and I’ll get right on it.
Over the weekend, I posted an article about how the Governor of Rhode Island vetoed a bill that would have granted same-sex partners legal claims for final disposition of a dead body. This is only an issue because same-sex marriage isn’t legal. Once two people are married, they have next of kin rights, which significantly includes legal claims for a dead body.
Then I saw this article about posthumous marriage in France and I had an epiphany. Same-sex marriage needs to be extended and recognized for dead partners. It is the least America can do once same-sex marriage becomes universal across the United States.
This is the best section from the article:
Under French law posthumous marriages are possible as long as evidence exists that the deceased person had the intention while alive of wedding their partner. According to Christophe Caput, the mayor who married Jaskiewicz, her request was “rock solid”.
At the very least, posthumous same-sex marriage acknowledges that even though two people who loved each other in life could not get married, death does not mean the dream will be forever denied.
When a person dies, his or her body needs to be claimed by the next of kin. If no kin can be found, then that dead body is handled by local authorities. The legal question of who (or whom) qualifies as next of kin is a real dilemma when it involves domestic partners who have been together for numerous years but lack any say over the final disposition of the body. Asserting a legal claim over the control of the corpse is a key issue for same-sex marriage proponents as well as domestic partnership advocates (which would cover heterosexual couples too).
Last week, in Rhode Island, the Governor vetoed a new Domestic Partners bill that would have granted same-sex and opposite-sex partners next of kin status for claiming dead bodies. This Providence Journal article discusses the veto and why Governor Carcieri did what he did.
I promise that in the future, people will look back and read these histories with disbelief.
You need only read this section to understand why:
At a hearing this year on one of the stalled bills to allow same-sex marriage, Mark S. Goldberg told a Senate committee about his months-long battle last fall to persuade state authorities to release to him the body of his partner of 17 years, Ron Hanby, so he could grant Hanby’s wish for cremation — only to have that request rejected because “we were not legally married or blood relatives.”
Goldberg said he tried to show the police and the state medical examiner’s office “our wills, living wills, power of attorney and marriage certificate” from Connecticut, but “no one was willing to see these documents.”
He said he was told the medical examiner’s office was required to conduct a two-week search for next of kin, but the medical examiner’s office waited a full week before placing the required ad in a newspaper. And then when no one responded, he said, they “waited another week” to notify another state agency of an unclaimed body.
After four weeks, he said, a Department of Human Services employee “took pity on me and my plight … reviewed our documentation and was able to get all parties concerned to release Ron’s body to me,” but then the cremation society refused to cremate Ron’s body.
“On the same day, I contacted the Massachusetts Cremation Society and they were more than willing to work with me and cremate Ron’s body,” and so, “on November 6, 2008, I was able to finally pick up Ron’s remains and put this tragedy to rest.”
“I felt as if I was treated not as a second-class citizen, but as a noncitizen,” Goldberg told the Senate Judiciary Committee, an hour into the first hearing this year in the 13-year push by gay-rights advocates for the right to marry in Rhode Island, and the pushback from the Roman Catholic Church and other opponents.
Kathy Kushnir, executive directive of the advocacy group Marriage Equality of Rhode Island, called the governor’s veto “unconscionable” when “people are trying to piece their lives together, which is what Rhode Island is requiring them to do without legal recognition,” and then when “faced with a time that could not be more difficult or more painful, not even being able to take care of funeral arrangements for their loved ones.”