A woman had died, and Reverend Ginny Wheeler faced a dilemma. Wheeler, of the Community United Methodist Church, in Huntington Beach, California was conducting the funeral. Yet the identity of the corpse had been called into question.
The deceased was in her late 60s, and had died suddenly. She was a member of the church choir, and liked to sing in stilettos and stockings. As is typical, Wheeler would be making some remarks at the funeral. But when the family appeared at church to discuss the service they made it very clear; she was actually a he, and would be buried and remembered as such.
Although the deceased had been married and conceived children as a man, Wheeler knew this person as a woman. She had identified as a woman, called herself by a female name, and dressed as a woman. But the funeral announcement the family had written had been for a man, the picture on the order of worship the family had selected was for a man, and now a relative of the deceased was eulogizing the life of a man. It was as if the woman in her was being erased. Wheeler would be speaking next, and felt something had to be said. One must always respect the family’s wishes, the reverend knew, but one must also respect the dead.
“So what did you say!?” I asked Wheeler, when we spoke by phone earlier this week.
“I said we all have to struggle to know who we are,” she told me, “and he had come to a point in his struggle where he felt he was a she.”
It was a light touch, gracefully delivered, and yet after the service a family member of the deceased approached Wheeler and, “practically had a meltdown,” she said. The family member was furious.
This year has seen remarkable achievements for the LGBT community. Gay couples earned the right to marry, and the transgender community received significant exposure, from Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and recent pick by Barbara Walters as the “Most Fascinating Person of 2015“, to an enhanced awareness of the abuse and obstacles faced by transgender youths across the country, to the death of Andy Warhol film star Holly Woodlawn. There have been lively discussions about transgender bathrooms, and appropriate transgender titles. But there is still one realm where the laws remain almost completely unwritten: death.
Consider the 2014 case of Jennifer Gable. She worked in customer service for Wells Fargo in Idaho and at the age of 32 unexpectedly had an aneurysm and died. Her friends were stunned, but they were even more shocked when they went to her funeral and discovered Jennifer was going to be buried as Geoff.
“I am disgusted,” one friend posted on Facebook. “It was not closed casket. They cut her hair, [put a] suit on. How can they bury her as geoff when she legally changed her name. So very sad.”
The crime, to friends and activists, was monumental, and one that is much more common than many of us may recognize: Jennifer’s corpse had been misgendered. And the alteration was certainly against the wishes of the deceased. “Her father erased her identity,” Meghan Stabler, of Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group, told a reporter with the Miami Herald, “either through ignorance or arrogance.”
To learn more on this issue, I reached out to an old friend, Caitlin Doughty, an innovative Los Angeles mortician who just opened a funeral home called Undertaking LA—their motto is “bringing death back home”—and was recently profiled in the New Yorker.
“The big unfortunate truth here is that legal control of the corpse is all that matters,” said Doughty, when I posed the question of just how a trans person makes sure their family doesn’t tamper with their gender after death. “If your next of kin (most likely your parents) don’t approve of your lifestyle, orientation, gender, etc they will be able to control that after you die.”
The “only way to change that is to figure out how to assign rights through a durable power of attorney to someone else,” she added, “whether it be a partner or a friend.” These laws are different in every state. Nevertheless, Doughty provides a witty tutorial on just how to fill out the form in one of her popular Ask a Mortician YouTube videos.
What would you do, I questioned Doughty, if a family member asked you to bury their beloved as their original gender, ignoring the one they had identified with later in life?
“As a funeral director I’ve never worked with a family who wanted me to misgender their son or daughter,” she replied, “but if that ever happened I would likely tell them that they would be better served by another funeral home.”
Writer Simon Davis explored the legal intricacies associated with funerals for trans people earlier this year for an article in VICE. He found that the lack of legal guidelines, plus a general misunderstanding of, or outright phobia against the trans community often fosters confusion and heartache.
“We have had situations in our office where the birth family of the individual has swept in—often with the power of the law on their side—[claiming] that the surviving spouse has no claim to the body of the deceased and have simply taken it and buried the deceased as they chose,” Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, explained to Davis. “That’s a traumatic and horrible situation for the surviving spouse of the transgender person.”
In September 2014, California signed into law the Respect After Death Act, giving transgender people the right to choose which gender they want reflected on their death certificate. Still, as Davis points out in the VICE article, there have been cases where funeral homes have refused to acknowledge the law, or simply don’t know about it.
Even more frightening is a situation I discussed with Christine Colby, an editor at Penthouse Magazine and founding member of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum (closed in Dec 2016). That is, one could imagine a very conservative state or agency calling into question the mental stability of trans people in the first place, thereby nullifying their right to make their own death-related decisions. Colby is presently working on a long article about transgender deaths and funerals, due out early next year with Death Salon.
“We advise people to make living wills,” Katherine Cummings, of Australia’s Gender Centre, explained to me, when I asked about the status of this issue in Australia. The problem, she said, is “I don’t know if their wishes will be observed, it is a matter of courtesy rather than law.”
Meaning, how a corpse’s gender is assigned is often up to the funeral home or the coroner. A progressive agent might understand and respect the wishes of the trans individual, a conservative or reactionary one may not. But as one interesting story on the Gender Centre’s website illustrates (link no longer available), even if all parties are amicable, confusion and heartache can still be the result.
“My father was a transgendered (male-to-female) person,” Margaret Cunningham wrote in the 2004 article, originally published in Polare Magazine. “My father had made attempts to have a sex change in the mid 1960s… On seeking psychiatric assistance at the time, my father was informed by the psychiatrist ‘You are a man with three daughters…Go home, and don’t be so silly.’… Fast forward to the late 1980s, early 1990s. My father pursues his dream. He commences the path to gender reassignment. Immediately prior to his first formal steps to gender reassignment he had been assessed by a geriatrician as ‘developing dementia.’”
Cunningham then discusses in detail how her father transitioned into life as a woman, meanwhile his dementia was becoming more pronounced. “He would ask my mother why he had no penis,” Cunningham wrote. “He would dress as a woman some days, a man on others, and somewhere in-between at other times.”
By the time Cunningham’s father passed, in 2004, the nature of his sexual identity had become something of a gender grey zone. “Days of funeral organising are complicated,” wrote Cunningham, “by discussions about: What is the legal name? Is this a man or a woman? What name will be used on official documents? What name will be used at the funeral services? What name goes on the death certificate? Who is legally the next of kin?”
In the end, largely because of the loving and thoughtful family the deceased left behind, and an understanding funeral director, a pathway for a respectable send-off was paved through the confusion.
“My father was dressed as a man for the viewing,” said Cunningham. “The name on the coffin was the legal female name with the alias of the previous male name; The funeral service was conducted in my father’s previous male name (my mother’s demand); The hospital death certificate was for a man; The formal registered death certificate was for a female.”
One lesson from this story: Human life is complicated, and so is human death. But the issue of gender identity is perhaps overcomplicated by a society that is still in the Neanderthal stages of understanding what gender even means, and the multifarious forms in which it can be manifested.
“Gender is a very important thing for parents and society as a whole,” said the Gender Centre’s Katherine Cummings, who grew up as a boy in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, a childhood remembered in her book Katherine’s Diary; the story of a transsexual—her latest book, The Life and Loves of a Transgendered Lesbian Librarian and other essays, short stories, poems and reviews was recently published by Beaujon Press. “I just don’t think it should be as important as it’s made out to be,” Cummings continued. “The gender markers for males and females change over the centuries. Not too long ago men were wearing silk stockings, corsets, wigs, and heels.”
And in fact, the future surely holds more changes, and surprises. I am reminded of a science fiction book from my youth, Samuel R. Delany’s Triton, about a world in which humans populate many of the solar system’s planets and moons and live in a society that contains “forty or fifty sexes.” Individuals can roam freely across this rich terrain of sexual identity.
Back at the United Methodist Church, in Huntington Beach, Reverend Wheeler may not be envisioning the world of Triton, but she is certainly looking ahead.
“I think we’re in the dark ages,” said Wheeler, “especially the church is in the dark ages about gender, and sexuality.”
Wheeler leads a regular support group at the church called Transparent, for the families of children who are transgender and gender nonconforming.
“What I am hoping,” she said, “is that the church can become a safe ally for all people to discuss sexuality and gender.”
In life, I might add, as well as in death.