Equal marriage, unequal funerals

Despite tangible progress in social attitudes and legislation, the grief of many gay and lesbian people who lose their spouses still goes unrecognised

Losing a partner can be especially difficult in the UK if they happened to be a member of the same sex. Why, in a country often considered the best place in Europe to be gay, is there still such inequality? Panagiotis Pentaris, a specialist in the study of gay widows and widowers and a PhD Researcher in Faiths & Civil Society at Goldsmiths College, gave me his take on the situation.

funeral

“Firstly, one’s experience of grief is closely tied to whether they will be accepted for their sexuality,” he began. “Many societies are free of the social norms that we see in the Western world, where there are many guidelines which dictate how we experience grief.”

“For instance, in China there is a somewhat ‘spiritual’ approach to life, in that there is no limitation to what your status has been before you are grieving. This means that the fact that you are grieving is not affected by who you are grieving for.”

“In effect, the grief assigns you a new social position, as social roles are assigned to you by society. The identity you gain from this social role is a completely individualistic process – you go from a ‘partnered’ social role into a ‘grievous’ social role,” he added.

          “A new social position”

Despite little over 6% of the UK’s population attending Church, it would be unrealistic to deny the profound impact that religion – particularly Christianity – has had on the formation of institutions and social attitudes in the UK. In many ways, as Prime Minister David Cameron stated last month, the UK is a very Christian country indeed.

According to Pentaris, the UK’s Christian heritage has (perhaps unsurprisingly) had a profound affect on our attitudes towards homosexuality, as well as how we treat those who grieve.

“The UK’s Anglican Church has traditionally been very unaccepting of gay couples. It has denied them the opportunity to express themselves and their sexual identity in the same way heterosexuals are allowed to.”

          “A new age of death”

“Religion has also contributed greatly to the formation of the traditional family system of man & woman, children and extended family. However, in a non-traditional world and in a new age of death, there are new family systems emerging. But, like legislation which is often slow to catch up, acceptance of this new order hasn’t filtered through society either.”

Past years have seen partners in gay relationships often refused visiting rights into hospitals, as in the notable and well-publicised case of the 2011 death of actor Tom Bridegroom in Los Angeles, where his partner Shane Bitney Crone was also cut out from funeral arrangements and threatened with violence if he attended the service. The fact that they could not get married meant that their relationship was not enshrined in any law, and so Tom’s family were not obliged to include Shane in the proceedings. (A feature-length documentary was made about the case last year).

Thankfully attitudes in the UK are, on the whole, more progressive. This is reflected in the fact that gay marriage has now been legalised across England and Wales. “The fact that 78,000 couples got married on the day the law came into force tells us how much legislation affects our lives,” Pentaris noted.

Panagiotis Pentaris specialises in the study of gay widows and widowers (Photo/Panagiotis Pentaris)

It is hoped that attitudes will continue to progress in the right direction, and that gay widows and widowers will feel less and less stigmatised when grieving for their partners. This will also reduce the number of gay and lesbian people who suffer from a phenomenon called ‘social death’ – a psychological form of death which proceeds objective death; i.e. the succession of all bodily functions.

“Social death begins with social isolation, desperation and social lockdown,” Pentaris explains. “The emotional and psychosocial death of an individual leads to deep depression and risk of suicide. This is seen much more among gay people who have lost their spouses than among straight people in the same situation.”

          ‘Lonely’ or ‘alone’?

“This generally occurs much more in rural spaces – but in London it is seen in a very different way as it is such an anonymous society, characterised by a distinct lack of social interaction. Perhaps this is best understood if we ponder the difference between the two words ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’.”

“Among gay widowers social death is a lot more intense as it is characterised by a complete lack of acknowledgement from society. Suicide often occurs, and a lot of the time the reason is because you are finding a way to be aggressive to yourself, as you are unable to be aggressive to society,” Pentaris added.

Even when the partner is allowed to be involved in funeral arrangements, there can also be definite prejudice from funeral homes. However, this does not come in the form of verbal abuse or even a lack of sensitivity, as for many gay people their dealings with some companies are over before they even begin. “There is not much bad treatment of gay people by funeral homes – but this is because they refuse to offer their services to them in the first place,” Pentaris explains.

So, other than the obvious advice not to reject clients on the basis of their sexuality, what else can people working in the death industry in London improve on?

“Loss, in general, is naturally a very sensitive topic. For one to be able to give 100% sensitivity in your services, you have to understand what loss is. Equality does not necessarily mean that we accept everything, it also means respecting differences.

“This means that even if being gay doesn’t sit among your personal values, you still need to be able to tailor your services to your clients.”

If you, someone you know or are working with has just lost a partner of the same sex, you may find the following resources useful:

More questions for Panagiotis Pentaris? Send him an email.

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