Do I have to attend the funeral of the one relative I liked in my awful family?
My uncle has just died and that’s very sad for me. We liked each other a lot and often spent the hard parts of family gatherings doing chores and escaping from our other relatives which neither of us ever liked very much. I think from many clues he dropped that he was actually gay and closeted but never came out during his life. I am gay and out and my family strongly disapproves.
Anyway, his funeral is definitely going to be awful. It will be a lot of people I don’t like saying things about him I’m pretty sure aren’t true, playing music he hated, and saying a lot of things about Jesus that he definitely didn’t believe. Do I need to go? If I go, should I try to do even some little something he would have actually liked? It just feels really sad and hard. Plus which the idea of sitting through that makes it feel sadder and harder. Help?
Dear Brave Correspondent,
First, please accept my condolences on the death of your uncle. He sounds like a lovely human, and I’m sorry for your loss. May his memory be for a blessing, as my people say.
As to the funeral: funerals are for the living. The living, in my experience, tend to treat the dead person as they did in life: respectfully or cavalierly or downright disrespectfully, tenderly or roughly. So you are probably right that the funeral is going to be a difficult situation. It’s important to remember now that a funeral is an opportunity for public grieving, and that funerals and grieving can go together, but they don’t necessarily have to. In fact there is a long, long queer tradition that grieving for the person we lost – we the people who knew them, who held their confidences, who knew them in the small hours of the morning – is not necessarily done at the funeral.
Because of course, as I’m sure you can imagine if you didn’t already know, LGBT2Q people have not always been well-remembered at our funerals, or properly grieved. We have been dressed in clothing our parents or other relatives couldn’t have gotten us into except over our dead bodies, we’ve been buried under our deadnames, we’ve had our long-time partners ignored and our possessions looted and all type and manner of other indignities perpetrated upon our helpless bodies. So, Brave Correspondent, I would like to say that 1) I am glad for your uncle that you are able to grieve him and remember him as he was, and 2) that you don’t need to do it at the funeral, in the river of disrespect that you anticipate, if you don’t want to.
Now: you could. There is something to be said for trying to pry open a space in a disrespectful or dismissive gathering for a piece of truth to enter. It’s hard work, but it can be rewarding. I guess what I’m not quite sure about is whether it’s worth it, in this moment, to do that work when the person who has long benefited from your openness isn’t there to benefit anymore. On the other hand, there may be future or younger generations of your family that could be much enriched by it.
(Also to say, you might have done that valuable work already and not know it. I remember being startled at 35 to learn from someone a couple of years younger that my coming out at 16 years old (the first one, anyhow) had – unbeknownst to me – caused quite a stir in the community of my synagogue in 1991, and had caused conversations that allowed more sense of room for some other kids to come out, later on and later on. I’d had no idea until two decades later. We can’t always see the ripples. And indeed, even though he didn’t ever “come out,” might your uncle’s openness with you have emboldened you in your life?)
Also, assuming you do see some benefit, my other question is about whether you have the energy to do it? There are a million arguments to make every day to a person who is disenfranchised or disempowered that their work/time/energy to teach people who have more power and privilege will be useful, important, and beneficial. That’s generally true. However, these entreaties rarely take into account the energy that it costs the individual who does it, and they also don’t pay attention to whether it’s fair or reasonable for the person who’s already burdened by oppression to be the one doing all the heavy lifting (no spoilers when I say: NO). I am not remotely counseling you to only ever do what feels comfortable and easy. But there is a calculus of effort to make here – is your work going to be useful or appreciated? Will people meet you and learn, do you think? Or are you potentially going to do the thing, and be authentic in your grieving besides, and then be made to feel awful (and exhausted)? Will you reap as a reward for your trouble a lot of bullshit and blowback that you will get to enjoy (in addition to the pile of homo-antagonism) for the next ever-how-many years?
I understand that these are a lot of questions. But the truth is that navigating what we owe families that have treated us unkindly is full of questions and mis-steps, attempts and reversals. We don’t always know, as adults, how to be with them when we suddenly have some choices. I think that’s okay. I think your uncertainty is good – you’re trying to figure out how to be kind, and you are not completely ruling out the option of showing more kindness than you have been offered, and those are excellent signs about you as a person. Honestly, I am less concerned about them.
What you do about this funeral may in the end be somewhat about what you want, and somewhat about what your uncle would have wanted, and somewhat about what you feel you can bear. That’s very okay. It is not actually true that you are required to do what other people want, or What Has Always Been Done, even when it’s awful for you – that might be your family’s message, but it’s not an actual truth. You can if you feel up to it, absolutely. Go and hum Somewhere Over The Rainbow quietly to yourself, go in a fabulous frock, go and read something subtly queer or overtly so or just go and stand and love him and enjoy your memories of quiet sweetness. But you don’t have to. You don’t have to go into the toxic stew if you don’t want, which is one of the best parts of being an adult (that and ice cream for dinner). You can make choices that empower you. And without doing too much here, Brave Correspondent, I’d bet money that’s what your uncle would have wanted, whatever the choice turns out to be.
love and courage,
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