Jun 5, 2009

Wait, did you seriously just say that?

I grew up in California, and my state is pretty well true to it's reputation of being....less conservative than average. Granted, I've been harassed, shunned, even outright beaten over being queer, but I always thought that when it comes to certain things, especially family, there's a line that just isn't crossed. This is why the events of the past weekend so thoroughly amazed me.

Several months ago, when she told me that her mother had Cancer, I promised my kinda-ex-nevermind-it's-complicated-girlfriend that when the time came, I'd jump on a plane and fly out to the Midwest to help her bury her mom. So it was, that when she called me from Toronto (she was in the middle of a business trip), I booked a one-way flight (we weren't sure how long things would take), and flew off to Cleveland to meet her and offer my sympathies.

Death is hard, no matter how prepared for the end you are, but for my friend it was doubly difficult. For the past four years, she'd only rarely been able to see her mom, due to both distance and conflict between her and other people in her mother's family. We'd hoped that in the darkness of losing a loved one, those hard feelings and prejudices could be set aside, that family could come together for just one day to share grief and say good-bye. We were unbelievably wrong...

We landed together at CLE on friday night and headed over to her dad's house (her parents had been long divorced). He greeted us, filled her in on the past few months and her mother's last days, and we left feeling the weight of the occasion, but ready to grieve. On the way out, her sister called saying, "Some of the family have asked that you don't show up to the viewing. They say you can come into the funeral home for a few minutes afterward, but not during the general viewing."

I know, take a minute to absorb that statement. Who are these family members? Vague mumbles always answered this question, but they were certainly not going to tolerate my friend's presence. We resolved to call around the next day...

It was Saturday and the obituary had come out. Anachronistic newsprint mourned the loss of a sainted mother to my friend's sister, "special mother" to my friend's ex-spouse, but no mention of my friend. They had simply erased her, with a nod to her ex as a special kind of insult.

My friend called her sister back, wanting to understand how so much animosity could survive and flourish like that. She wasn't going to be erased, so she told her sister that the family could just deal with the fact that she would be present at the viewing. It was her mother that'd died, and she intended to say good-bye. A few hours later, news had filtered through to her step-father who called and delivered a matter-of-fact edict. "Here's your options, and I'm only going to say this once. You can come at 7, after everyone else is done, and take your 15 minutes to say good-bye, or you can not come at all. I'll have a cop at the door to make sure of that. *click*"

Yes, you heard that right, he was hiring an off-duty police officer to keep her out of her own mother's services.

And before you ask, yes, her step-father had that legal right, as the funeral home was private property contracted by him. So it was, that the next day, we (My friend, another friend of her's, and myself), drove to a shopping center near the funeral home and parked where our cars couldn't be identified and vandalized, and we walked to the funeral home at the official start time. Sure enough, a uniformed police officer stood guard at the entrace.


We sent in the third member of our party, as she comes off much less threatening than I, and hadn't been explicitly told not to show up. She went inside, and formally asked the funeral home's director (with the step-father standing nearby), if we could be allowed inside. "Oh my God! They're here! They're here!", I wasn't present, of course, but I'm told the step-father reacted like we'd just stormed the beach at Normandy. "Those people are not to be allowed inside under any circumstances!", the funeral director could only agree with his client's request, so our other friend walked back to the sidewalk, where we sat down and initiated project Ghandi.

Okay, we didn't have any clever name for it at the time, but the premise was simple enough. We were in a labor state where the right to strike is sacrosanct. Being a public easement, we knew we were in our legal rights to remain there. This was the crux moment. Although we had legal rights, the police officer could have trumped up a reason to remove us for the duration of the ceremony, and we'd have lost our gamble completely, but he just stood at the door, showing no hint of emotion of sympathies for either side. A credit to his uniform.

I'm told, from those who were inside, that the step-father was yelling at the cop to have us removed and/or arrested. The cop answered that we were on public grounds and not causing a disturbance, so there was nothing he could do. I'm told he would get up every 15 minutes to look out the window and see if we were still there. We were. I'm told he called the police department to have additional officers sent around to "round us up", each new arrival told him the same story, no laws were being broken.

The challenge

About half an hour into the services, we were approached by the ex, who calmly flipped through the binder full of memories my friend had brought with her. They hugged, but didn't say much... What can be said at that point? Then my friend's ex-mother-in-law came over and just as I thought we were going to see another calm, but sad episode of sharing... "You know, you brought this on yourself."

I felt numb for a moment. I couldn't possibly have heard that come out of her mouth, not with my friend's mother lying in a casket 20 feet away... My friend managed to utter, "No", then turned away and began crying. "Yes, you did. You brought this on yourself." Our other friend interjected, "That's really not necessary..." "Yes it is", the mother in law replied, "this situation is because of her actions..."

She didn't get to finish that sentence. Something inside me snapped and a wellspring of rage came over me. I stood directly in front of the MiL, and found the most even temped voice I could manage, "Ma'am, I understand that you've just lost someone dear to you. I understand that you're in pain, and I understand that you think you're doing good, so I'm going to try to say this in the nicest way possible.", from here, my decorum ran out of rehearsed speeches and my rage took over, "You are an unchristian, bad...bad... Horrible person."

"No she isn't.", I heard from my firend's ex, but I ignored that. I stared at, and through her MiL, almost wanting a physical confrontation. "Sara..." The plaintive caution of our other friend snapped me out of my anger and I stepped away, andrenaline thundering through my blood. The MiL gave up trying to berate my friend and began to walk away. "I'm sorry", I offered, "That was unnecessary and uncalled for, I apologize." I don't remember much of the next several minutes, as my stress level slowly calmed down.

"Thank you", my friend told me. "I needed some strength right there and that's exactly what you gave me." After a moment she smiled, "You did unload on her a bit though...". "Yeah", I smiled back, "I was killing a few of my own demons there at the same time, might've over-estimated the firepower...

Soon afterward, her step-grandmother came around. "Why don't you just leave? You've making a spectacle of your mother's viewing!" She continued and I held myself back as long as I could. My friend held her own against this onslaught much better, continually drawing the conversation back to her mother, and trying to remember the best of her mother and focus on the mourning of her passing. The step-grandmother continued to catalouge all the (made-up) offenses my friend had allegedly committed against the family (all of which were thinly veiled reproachments for her queerness), until I spoke up, asking her if Jesus taught forgiveness, "Yes, BUT... we someone, when you have, when the person that has brought you into this world..." Honestly, even though I captured video of the entire event, I couldn't tell you for certain what she said as her argument descended and crashed into incoherency. Eventually she threw her hands up and walked away. Our other friend looked at me a little dumb-founded... "That... Was almost a thing of beauty the way she fell apart..." Yeah, I felt a little guilty at the efficacy of it too....


Next up, was my friend's cousin. "What are y'all doing out here? Aren't you coming inside?" We told him what the step-father had said. His curious smile fell into disbelief, then anger rose in his face until his aura throbbed a dark crimson red. "That's ridiculous, I'll be right back." He stormed inside, and I'm told he raised holy hell on our behalf. Shortly thereafter, several more family members came out until there was all but a line queuing up around my friend to console her and share grief over her mother's death. For myself, I began to worry that we'd start to qualify as an unruly mob and give the police something to raise a fuss about. Nothing happened though, I think I even saw the cop smile.


Eventually her mother's nurse, who was no part of the family, pulled my friend aside. "I only knew your mother for a few months, but she told me things about you in that time. Good things.", and she proceeded to list off things that she couldn't have made up. Things that proved to my friend that her mother really had loved her at the end, but was too afraid to show it.

My friend visibly brightened after that. As though she'd let go of something sour and offal. A few more hours passed in the pleasant late-spring weather. People came out and went back in, arrived and departed, noone else said an unkind word after her step-grandmother. Finally, when the funeral home was nearly empty, the cop approached us, "The funeral director's told me it's okay for you to come in now. I'm sorry for your loss." We thanked him and shook his hand and made our way inside. The step-father and other naysayers were nowhere to be seen, but there at the end of an array of fold-out chairs, was my friend's mother.

A poetic ending

I won't go into the details of her weeping, but she cried out the last of her grief. After hours of sharing, but not having access to the body, my friend had excised the worst of her grief already. She had prepared herself and found the peace she needed to see her mother's still form. For all her step-father's machinations and attempts to rob her of her mother and her place in her family, my friend was able to grieve her mother's passing in a way that couldn't possibly have been any better or more complete. If we had been inside the whole time, the shock of seeing her with so many unresolved things would have been devastating. If we had simply taken orders and not shown up until the last few minutes, there would not have been nearly enough time, and there would have been no family to lean on. By standing on the sidewalk, we took away that power, we reclaimed it as our own, and we amplified it even further. We said good-bye.

And the naysayers? They just looked like monsters. Love: 1, Hate: 0; Schadenfreude, I haz it.


  1. You can tell a lot about a culture and society by how they handle funerals. As a Midwesterner, a catholic, I am sorry about the way those people acted. It should be a celebration and a time to grieve. I can understand if that was their initial reaction, grief can make you act irrational but it was pre-meditated.

    The fact a cop was there at a funeral is strange to me. The only time I have seen a cop was when one of my teammates mothers was murdered. It was very strange.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. My husband was looking for some code online and ran across this. He linked to his fb, utterly enraged, and warned me not to read it... but of course I did. I just wanted to let you know that this family in NY is sending love and sympathy about having been treated so inhumanely. I'm sure this is incoherent, but I don't make much sense when I'm crying. I'm actually really shocked that you've only had one reply.

  3. @Eli; The cop was hired by the step-father explicitly to keep my friend out (that's how loony these people are). The irony is that he probably provided as much protection for us since the step-father wasn't likely to come out with fists swinging so long as he was standing there.

    @Sandra; Actually, there were many comments to the original posting of this entry, however I just moved all my blog content to blogspot from its original host and didn't bring the comments along at the same time.

    I'd *planned* to add the old comments at a later time, but that system crashed (it was very old) so they are, sadly, lost forever.

    Most were kind and supportive, though unsurprisingly there were one or two which... I'm only to happy to have lost in the shuffle.

    Thank you both for you sympathies, and God Bless.


  4. Very moving. Thank you for writing.

    A note about the legal basis (as I understand as a layperson who went through something similar): after a death, one person has decision power over the remains. Each state has slightly different rules, but California's rather specific that a living will contract trumps all, and without that, there's a chain of siblings and parents to be gone through. Funeral homes have a small staff of paralegals on hand who sort through possibly conflicting paperwork and demands. The designated person has 100% say in what happens: whether there will be a viewing, when it will be, who will be allowed in. What's written in the will is more of a guide; the important bit is choosing someone kind and of like mind to how you'd like it to go down.

    In my case, the copy of the living will was buried in hundreds of reams of other paperwork. My partner's brother found it at the last minute, throwing the decision to me instead of another (considerably more spiteful) family member. I created an inclusive and sharing memorial that everyone said was just right - but the funeral home would have gone with who has the paperwork; that's all they can do under the law.

  5. Just reading this, having lost my own grandfather in may this year.
    I'm gutted about the fact that the family cannot put any bad feeling aside - to the fact of refusing a daughter access to her own mother's funeral... There is just no polite and correct word for this, and even though personally I am an atheist, I can understand the teachings of God and Jesus for tolerance, love and understanding... and I'm always amazed at how fast some so-called Christians can go to Church on Sunday and act all pious then become an insuffrable bigot as soon as they come out of the door. Being gay is not a disease, it's just life. You may or may not agree to it, fine, but your opinion is yours alone, and what happened is so wrong on so many levels I'm still gobsmacked that this can happen in the 21st century in a developed country...

    I'm sorry for your friend's loss and I'm even sorrier that she has outlaws like that in her family.

    Peace out everyone!

  6. Of course I dont know what happened between your friend and her family, but it should not have to matter at a funeral, especially that of her mother. Ridiculous.

  7. After reading this, it really makes me both angry and sad to see such a display of bigotry. Someone earlier say that being gay was not a disease, and they are completely right. What people choose to do with their life is up to them -- it's not anyone else's right to change it.
    It's just a sad story when a family cannot get over others differences for a time of grieving, but it's also infuriating that someone would go to such lengths to stop someone from properly grieving for a loss.

  8. Reading this is so familiar. I wonder if your friend and I grew up in the same religion. You are such a great friend to her. She's lucky to have you and be out of that religion (if it's the same one I'm thinking of).

    My sincere condolences to your friend. I'm glad she was strong enough to go through that and got to say goodbye to her mother.


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