An excerpt from Amber Dawn’s new book, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, which came out on Tuesday.
How To Bury Our Dead
for Shelby Tom
Have you ever had to attend a Catholic or Sikh or Japanese or 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”; Wikipedia will tell you that “The page ‘Queer funeral etiquette’ does not exist.” Now try Googling it. When I first tried this, the closest result was a website that explained tipping etiquette for gay men vacationing in Mexico. There are now a few online discussions.
It only got worse when I swapped labels and mixed up words. The first result on a search for “gay memorial service” brought me to an article about a Navy veteran’s funeral that was cancelled when his church congregation learned that he was gay. If you search for this story, you will discover that this happened in 2007.
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 heterosexuals. Doesn’t it seem a little off that we—with our rich array of community rituals and traditions—don’t have customs for mourning? Exactly how do we bury our dead?
I am not an expert. All of my grieving has been done in rather bitter privacy. I can only share with you my own stories of bereavement in the hope that they help spark conversation, and that conversation brings change. I believe this is the way we queer folks do things.
I’ll start with what I know: My family is made up of mostly hard-working farmers, churchgoers, and people who strongly believe 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 the age of fifty. My ma made a bed for me in the back seat of our 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.
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 grief-stricken sob as she searched for an empty hook for my red wool poncho. While being raised by a single mom, I had seen plenty of tears. Ma 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 from deep within her body. Her crying fired up loudly and continued, almost mechanically, as we were received by a half-dozen or so aunties and 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 arrive 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 lies for three days, forcing yourself to look at the pale and gentle flesh of your uncle’s closed eyelids. When you cry, it’s uncensored. And you’re not alone.
It’s likely that we all have a story something like this: a memory of bagpipes or a parade of black suits or of kneeling for 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—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 beside my spine, down toward my hips. 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 to slide 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.