Dignity and Compassion in LGBTQ+ End of Life Ceremonies

In the past decade or so, Western society has made tremendous strides in creating laws that ensure equal rights for people regardless of their sexual orientation. However, even the most enlightened laws don’t prevent barriers from arising in the most unexpected places and guises. Unfortunately, this can be particularly true for the LGBTQ+ community when suffering the loss of a loved one.

A recent study conducted in the UK found that 25% of LGBTQ respondents expect to face prejudice following the death of a loved one or close friend. The study uncovered many instances of poor treatment towards grieving members of the gay community, with family members and religious leaders most likely to discriminate against them. (Cooperative Funeral Care, 2014)

Upon the death of a loved one, more than one “family” may feel that they have the right to make decisions about and for the deceased.

The birth family — siblings or parents — may feel that they have both the right and the responsibility to decide the content and tone of the Celebration of life, funeral, or memorial service, cremation or burial. They may feel that the religious context in which the family has always operated is the most appropriate in saying goodbye. They may not wish to disclose the sexual orientation of their loved one to their religious leader, or their culture or religion may not embrace LGBTQ rights.

However, many LGBTQ+ folks form their own “chosen families” of people who have consistently been present for them throughout their adult lives. These are the people who will likely be most in touch with the lifestyle and therefore, the wishes of the deceased.  The chosen family often includes a longtime partner, who may not be recognized as such by the biological family. At a time of deep grief and shock, this person has to repeatedly ‘come out’ to the family, the funeral director, the florist, the caterers and innumerable other businesses that play a role in end of life ceremonies.

As Celebrants, we need to be mindful of this complexity if we are to serve our LGBTQ+ clients with respect and compassion. We need to ensure that everyone feels heard, and to take their feelings into account when creating the Celebration of Life or Memorial ceremony for their loved one. Above all, we need to approach the situation with an open mind and an open heart so that we can tap into the unifying thread of love that ties everyone together. That is the most important thing, the very essence of what we do.

Funeral Celebrant Janis Horne, for Modern Celebrant

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