Marriage Lessons from the Funeral Home
My uneasy feelings about marriage became even more complicated this past November when I got the call that no one wants to get.
“He didn’t make it.”
The police officer was telling me that John, my partner of 12 years, had died in a car accident in Montana where he’d been working, 2,500 miles away from the home we shared in Massachusetts.
He had to repeat what he was saying a few times. When I digested the news, tears came out of me in waves. I’ve never been so out of control of my emotions. This release was the best thing to do in that moment for so many reasons, but especially because the police officer got visceral proof of the primary nature of our relationship.
That relationship wasn’t clear when the police officer had made the call. John’s wallet must have fallen out during the crash and with it his license and the “Who to Call in an Emergency” card that he’d made and kept there (hey, he’d been an Eagle Scout). Fortunately, our mortgage company must have decided to marry us off at some point because John comes up in some databases with my last name, as John Cushing. The police officer called the number listed there and it was the home phone I answered.
“Does he have other family?”
John’s father left the family when he was 2 years old. There was a period of contact in John’s 20s, but that ended. When John’s mother died in 2011, his father didn’t call though he had heard the news.
But John’s father was legally the next-of-kin because we were not married.
In these first moments on the phone with the police officer, I was already planning to get on a plane to Montana as soon as possible and claim John’s body. I would do anything to make that happen.
I told the police officer the story of John and his father’s relationship and that I – truly – did not have his contact information, but I knew that he lived in North Carolina.
The police officer gave me the name of the funeral home to work with and, though he didn’t say it directly, I feel pretty certain he slowed down the search for John’s dad to allow me to get to Montana.
Would he have done that if my name had been Charles instead of Carolyn? This man showed me such compassion that I want to believe he would, but I tend to doubt it. As part of the legal system, there would have been various problems with his doing so. Even if John and my masculine alter ego Charles had been married in Massachusetts, they wouldn’t have been married in Montana. Montana has some of the nation’s steepest restrictions on same-sex marriage, banning it by constitution and by law.
While my sister worked on getting us tickets to Montana, I talked with the funeral home. They would receive John’s body and wait for me to arrive. Could I please bring some documentation of our relationship? They were gentle in making this request, but in the background I knew they had to face some legalities to release the body to me.
Ok, what documentation? I had mortgage statements and that had already linked us together today. But I wondered how compelling they would be. I was worried.
I called a co-worker and asked if she could give me a letter saying John had been my domestic partner since 2000 and list the dates when he was covered by my health insurance. Connie e-mailed me a copy, sent me a hard copy, and faxed to the funeral home. There would be no stopping that message.
And this is just what they needed. When I arrived at the funeral home directly from the plane, we did our business first. The funeral director took out the faxed version of the letter and said the information it contained would satisfy the requirements they had to meet. Thank you, Connie! Thank you, Massachusetts!
The week in Montana was stunning. I was stunned by my loss and stunned by the support given to me by all sorts of people from John’s wonderful co-workers to the woman in the post office who helped me and my shaky hands fill forms to forward John’s mail back home. No one questioned my and John’s relationship. Might the kindness have been there if my name was Charles? From some people, yes, because they are good-hearted and don’t want to see people in pain. Would things have been as easy for me if my name was Charles? I doubt it. People assumed our relationship as one of marriage, or just about the same thing.
At the end of the week, I returned to the funeral home to pick up John’s ashes and the death certificate. I slipped the certificate from its manila envelope and look sadly at the stats: date of birth, date of death, mother’s name, my name. I stopped short looking at the slot to list the type of our relationship, it said, “Married.”
“Ah, we aren’t married,” I sputtered to the woman who’d handed me the envelope. “We are partners. I don’t want to misrepresent us.” I said.
And in truth, I didn’t want to be married. Neither of us felt comfortable with marriage for our own reasons of observing less than optimal relationships unimproved by marriage. But also because why should we be able to marry when others couldn’t? I used to say, “We’ll get married 10 years after gay marriage is allowed in all 50 states. The institution will need at least that much time to recover from its bad habits of putting males and females in little boxes of traditional and dreary roles. ” And I’d laugh.
“There is no option for domestic partner in Montana so we picked married.” The woman smiled at me.
And so I was married there in the funeral home. No flowers. Just ashes, but they were mine to take home.
Would this have happened if my name was Charles? Absolutely not.
This piece was previously published in Carolyn Cushing’s blog, Unstoppable Wholeness.