Introducing Death Queerious: Everything Funeral Professionals Need to Know About Working with Queer Families

Funeral Industry News Human Resources July 19, 2023
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Aries Jo

Aries (they/them) is a certified Celebrant and the Director of Outreach and Education at Parting Stone where they create forward-thinking content for funeral professionals. Aries leads the Death Curious online community and hosts the Death Curious podcast. Learn more about Parting Stone and their complete alternative to cremated remains here.

Introducing Death Queerious: Everything Funeral Professionals Need to Know About Working with Queer Families

As we all know, June was Pride month, which is a time to celebrate the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Since so many death care professionals are members of the queer community, it’s an important month to acknowledge within the death profession. Pride month is also a wonderful time to reflect on how our funeral businesses support and serve the queer community and their loved ones, since the LGBTQIA2S+ community can often have a lot of special needs and considerations when it comes to funeral planning.

This year, in the spirit of carrying Pride month and LGBTQIA2S+ support into the rest of the year, Death Curious has put together a free resource for funeral directors called “Death Queerious: Everything You Need to Know About Working with Queer Families” to help funeral professionals better understand the nuanced relationship between the queer community and death. The queer community has a complex history with discrimination, prejudices, and threats of violence and early death, and like other marginalized communities, needs special consideration in end of life care. Death Queerious contains everything that funeral professionals need to know about the specific needs of queer families during end of life care and planning.

Why do queer folx need special consideration at end-of-life? 

For the LGBTQIA2S+ community, who already exist in a world of prejudice and discrimination, the topic of death is even more complex, and can often bring up additional trauma. Thus, the problem of death avoidance can be particularly relevant and more nuanced. Research shows that queer and trans people have shorter life expectancies on average, due to factors like being statistically more likely to face violence, and having discrimination-based trouble seeking medical care. These issues, coupled with pervasive death avoidance in wider culture make death more present in the lives of queer people, while simultaneously depriving that population of safe spaces and resources to talk about and learn about death care, end of life care, and grief support. 

Death avoidance 

Funeral directors know better than most how taboo the subject of death is in everyday life and conversation. But, here’s the thing: death is the only thing in this world guaranteed to happen to every single living person. No one can escape it. And that thought is absolutely terrifying. Facing our own mortality, the mortality of everyone we love, and the ephemeral nature of being is hard. 

Death isn’t a part of our everyday lives in modern culture, like it was before the early 20th century. This removal of death from our every-day has led to a phenomenon that sociologists, historians, and anthropologists call Death Avoidance. Death avoidance refers to conscious or unconscious behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes individuals adopt to avoid thoughts and reminders of death. Death avoidance can have negative effects on the human psyche. While it is a common and natural response, excessive or maladaptive death avoidance strategies can hinder psychological well-being and personal growth. 

Death avoidance has intense real-world implications like personal anxiety, frustration with living family members who are unwilling to talk about end of life issues, all of which can lead to harmful end of life care for marginalized populations like queer, trans, and BIPOC folx. These problems result in disappointing memorials, self-doubt about end of life decisions we make for our loved ones, disenfranchised and complicated grief, and grief avoidance. When we don’t talk about death, we find ourselves unprepared for it, when it inevitably comes. This avoidance and lack of preparation can have specifically harmful impacts on the queer community, because of our complex relationship to and traumatic history of violent death due to homophobia and discrimination. 

Elevated Rates of Violence and Assault

For years, data and research have shown that queer people are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes, including murder. According to this article from the Prison Policy Initiative, “LGBT people — and particularly young adults, people of color, women, and bisexual people — are at heightened risk of violent victimization compared to their straight and cisgender counterparts.” Awareness of this fact makes the threat of death a more ever-present part of our lives, and thus, might make queer folx more resistant to spending time thinking about death planning and preparation 

The HIV/AIDS Epidemic

Furthermore, the AIDS epidemic and the disproportionate number of deaths it caused in the LGBTQIA2S+ community led to real, widespread generational trauma among queer folx. Looking back now, we know that there was a blatant lack of care and action taken by the US government to stop AIDS because of homophobic ideologies. Queer folx, particularly gay and bisexual men, and trans women, were impacted by AIDS at a significantly higher rate than other populations. Since many straight/cis nurses and doctors refused to treat homosexual AIDS patients, lesbian nurses now known as “the blood sisters” stepped up and cared for the dying queer population in AIDS wards across the US. Thus, during the AIDS crisis, the entire LGBTQIA2S+ community was faced with grizzly, horrific death day in and day out. 

Furthermore, the AIDS epidemic caused a whole generation of the LGBTQIA2S+ community to have a diminished life expectancy for decades. This article from the National Library of Medicine explains just how shortened the life expectancy of gay and bisexual men was in the mid 1990’s: 

“[L]ife expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for all men. If the same pattern of mortality were to continue, we estimate that nearly half of gay and bisexual men currently aged 20 years will not reach their 65th birthday. Under even the most liberal assumptions, gay and bisexual men in this urban centre are now experiencing a life expectancy similar to that experienced by all men in Canada in the year 1871.” 

Healthcare Discrimination

Additionally, due to continued discrimination in healthcare spaces, and stigma and prejudice around gender affirming care, many queer folx resist or put off seeking basic medical help on a regular basis. This means that minor health problems are more likely to become larger, potentially life-threatening health concerns among the LGBTQIA2S+ population. Common life threatening concerns for queer and trans folx like suicidality, HIV, etc. often go untreated, and there have been many reports of queer patients with these health concerns being turned away from medical facilities simply for being queer.

Transness and Death

According to the HRC 2021 was the most deadly year for trans and genderqueer folx ever, since they began recording trans violent deaths in 2013 and the majority of these deaths were BIPOC trans women, “Sadly, 2021 has already seen at least 57 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. We say at least because too often these stories go unreported — or misreported. In previous years, the majority of these people were Black and Latinx transgender women. In 2020, HRC tracked a record number of violent fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people. A total of 44 fatalities were tracked by HRC, marking 2020 as the most violent year on record since HRC began tracking these crimes in 2013. These victims, like all of us, are loving partners, parents, family members, friends and community members. They worked, went to school and attended houses of worship. They were real people — people who did not deserve to have their lives taken from them.”

Many experts agree that legislation against trans rights, including bathroom bills, sports rulings, and now the atrocious public school bills popping up in Florida, Texas, and other states have a harmful impact by misinforming the public about who trans folx are, and creating stigmatization around the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Not only do these bills have negative consequences for trans folx, experts believe that these bills actually lead to more violent attacks against that community. According to an article from CBS News, “2021 was the deadliest year yet for those who are transgender or non-binary, with at least 47 people killed since January 1[…] The year of deadly violence comes after a surge in legislation seeking to limit access to sports and health care for transgender children[…] Between the start of 2020 to April of this year, more than 75 bills specifically targeted transgender youth were introduced. Several more have been proposed since.” 

And with the “LGBTQIA2S+ Panic Defense” still being used in courts today to heinously excuse the violence perpetrated against the trans community, violence and death continue to be an escalating problem. It is a sad fact that the trans community faces an elevated threat of violence and death, which makes specialized care for our community within the deathcare profession even more vital.  

Trans-Specific Needs at End of Life

Additionally, trans folx are the most vulnerable population to abuse and mistreatment after death. In addition to being the victims of escalating violent crimes, trans folx also commonly deal with difficult relationships with family of origin. Often, if a trans person’s family of origin is still legally listed as their “next of kin” that family has the right to non-consensually degender, or detransition the deceased, leading to funeral viewings, death certificates, and memorial markers in which the deceased person’s dead name and incorrect gender are used. This abuse is called “non-consensual degendering” in funeral homes, and is a real threat to the trans community if legal precautions aren’t taken during a person’s lifetime.

This article outlines just how common nonconsensual degendering is among the trans/nonbinary population: “In their paper,Transgender and Nonbinary Deaths Investigated by the State Medical Examiner in the Portland, Oregon, Metro Area and Their Concordance with Vital Records, […] the researchers found that more than half of transgender and non-binary people who died during this time period were misgendered on their death certificates.” 

These challenges, coupled with outdated laws about next of kin and funeral planning can make death planning extremely more difficult for the genderqueer and trans community than it already is for everyone else. 

Queer Death Care

It’s clear that many societal factors contribute to the tangible threat of violence and death in the lives of many queer and trans people. When combined with the widespread problem of death avoidance that exists in American culture, it’s easy to see why the LGBTQIA2S+ community needs special consideration and attention when it comes to end-of-life care. 

Building a Better Relationship with Death 

Research shows that having a healthy relationship with our mortality can actually lead to a happier, more fulfilled life. A recent study from Science Daily revealed that, “Thinking about death can actually be a good thing. An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values[…]. In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, Vail and colleagues performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.” This research found that normalizing thinking about and talking about death in our daily lives in healthy ways can lead to a higher inclination to help others, making choices that are better for the environment, and living healthier lifestyles. 

From the ever-present threat of violent death from assault, to the AIDS epidemic, to difficulty accessing safe medical care, queer folx have had to deal with the looming possibility of early death as a very dark and tangible part of our lives throughout history. This has also led to exponential amounts of grief in our community. Since very few people in our modern culture are comfortable talking about death and grief, or know how to approach these topics in a healthy way, the problems of grief and death avoidance continue to compound, especially in the queer community. This problem leaves our community vulnerable when it comes to planning a good death, and having a healthy relationship with our mortality… both of which can concretely improve quality of life. When queer folx know that funeral homes and businesses are safe spaces, and that they will have support instead of discrimination during end-of-life planning, it can directly improve our emotional wellbeing and quality of life.

Death Queerious: Offering Specialized Support 

Since the LGBTQIA2S+ community already faces social challenges like discrimination, prejudice, and difficulty accessing proper healthcare among other things, it’s even more important that the death care profession understands how to honor and serve queer decedents and their families. Queer folx deserve good, safe, end of life care and proper respect and treatment after death. Empowering our profession with knowledge and resources in order to provide safe spaces for the LGBTQIA2S+ community at end-of-life is vital to truly offering a good death to all. That’s why Death Curious has created the free ebook Death Queerious. Download your free ebook by clicking below: 

Death Queerious will help funeral professionals understand the nuanced, often complicated relationship between the queer community and death. The ebook contains information about language and common terms used by the LGBTQIA2S+ community, and delves into ways to make your funeral services more inclusive and compassionate for queer and trans folx and their families. Death Queerious also breaks down understanding non-traditional family structures like chosen family and polyamory, and how to be conscious of the needs that these families might have in end-of-life care. 

It’s important to understand that expanding cultural knowledge in your funeral home will help improve your services for all of the families that you serve.