Lack of Funeral Rights Turns Mourner Into Gay Activist

November 16, 2009

image PROVIDENCE ? Mark Goldberg says the police were at his Fox Point home for about two hours the day he found his domestic partner?s body in the garage. The officers arrived quickly, said over and over how sorry they were, and determined that 60-year-old Ronald Hanby had taken his own life.

Then they left, and the medical examiner took the body ? leaving Goldberg no number to call, and no instructions for finding out where the body would be.

For Goldberg, it was the start of a month-long ordeal, one that would propel the normally private East Side resident to the forefront of a high-profile political battle.


Goldberg and others thought they won that battle in October, when state lawmakers passed a bill that allows domestic partners to make funeral arrangements for their loved ones. Then Governor Carcieri vetoed the bill, prompting a backlash from gay advocates, and finally, a face-to-face meeting between the governor and gay advocates on Nov. 12.

Afterward, Carcieri said he might be open to supporting a domestic-partnership law, one that would bestow many ? though not all ? the rights of marriage to domestic partners.

Also there, standing with members of the gay-rights group Queer Action of Rhode Island and taking many of the questions from the media, was Goldberg.

?I never wanted this,? he said later, referring to the attention. ?I didn?t want attention. But if you?re determined to see something through, you do it.?

GOLDBERG, 49, says his rise to prominence started with his desire to honor Hanby?s wishes and have his body cremated. The two had lived together for 17 years, first in a Benefit Street condominium and later in a house they owned on Sheldon Street.

But it became clear as he made calls the day after Hanby died that things were not going to be easy.

Funeral homes, referring to state law, wanted to know if he was a family member. And calls to the state Department of Health and the state medical examiner?s office were met with rebuffs ? again, because he was not a relative. Even with help from Ray Rickman, a former Democratic state representative, and Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, he was told he had no right to the body. And, he said, the people he spoke with were not interested in seeing the will and the living will and the power of attorney documents that indicated he was carrying out Hanby?s wishes.

Then, after three weeks, a woman from the Department of Family Services called and said the case had been sent to her and a file indicated Goldberg was the person to call.

Goldberg told her about his paperwork, and she ? unlike others he had talked with ? asked him to bring it in.

Within a day, he was told he would be able to get the body.

There were more delays and missteps, but finally, 32 days after Hanby died, he was able to have the body cremated. The cremation took place in Massachusetts because the funeral home he called in Rhode Island raised all the same concerns.

GOLDBERG SAYS the delays were all the more frustrating because he was grieving.

?Here?s somebody just lying on a slab, and you?re thinking, what is the dignity in this,? he said. ?I still loved the man and I wanted to do what was right for him, what was honorable, and respectful.?

He does not pretend that his relationship with Hanby was perfect. In fact, the two had decided to part ways four days before Handy took his life, he says.

He declined to offer details on the breakup but said he believes it was a factor in Hanby, who suffered from clinical depression, deciding to take his life.

?When he knew I was no longer going to be there for him, it gave him the permission to kill himself,? he said.

It happened on Oct. 2, 2008.

Goldberg says he got home about 7 p.m. and noticed that the two-story colonial was dark. The lights weren?t on the way Hanby usually had them.

He entered through the back door, like always, and saw a photograph, a card and note on the kitchen counter. The note said please forgive me for what you?re going to find when you go into the garage.

There, Hanby had hanged himself from the rafters.

The struggle to get Hanby?s body from the state morgue led Goldberg to testify in February before state lawmakers, who later adopted the bill giving domestic partners the right to make funeral arrangements for their loved ones.

He had also testified in favor of gay marriage, calling it an issue of fairness, rejecting arguments that it is evil or an aberration that society should not embrace. Gay people, he said, are everyday people like him ? a member of the Fox Point Neighborhood Association, an aerobics instructor at the local YMCA, a volunteer who leads tours of historic Providence homes, a businessman who works for a family clothing store in Danielson, Conn.

MOST STATES, including Rhode Island, have laws that allow people to designate someone to make their funeral arrangements, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

In Rhode Island, a person can name a funeral planning agent who must be at least 18 but does not have to be related to the deceased. The law also states that in the absence of such a designation, funeral homes must deal with next of kin.

?We have to follow the letter of the law,? said Thomas Keefe, owner of Keefe Funeral Home, in Central Falls.

Goldberg said he and Hanby had not made the funeral planning-agent designation but had named each other sole beneficiaries in their wills. ?It was very clear the intent,? he said. As far as he knew, Hanby had no relatives or next of kin.

Goldberg said he was pleased that Carcieri concluded in his meeting with Queer Action that mistakes were made in Hanby?s case. But he was quick to add that it came only after a long ordeal, one that so far has ended with the governor?s veto.

?It just goes on and on,? he said.

Still, a part of his personal ordeal ended over Labor Day weekend, when he was able to honor Hanby?s request that his ashes be sprinkled from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, near Taos, N.M. It was a spot the two had visited, he said.


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