The future of queer death could be outside of the funeral home

We can become more skilled in navigating, subverting and transforming death and dying industries and institutions 

“If you know what’s around,” Ash Hayhurst says, “when you do need [end-of-life or funeral] care, you’re not going to be scrambling around to try and find somewhere queer-affirming.” Hayhurst, who authored a funeral-planning guide for queer people, is a bisexual trans man who worked as a funeral professional and now leads the Being Ready project for the charity GIRES, in collaboration with Hospice UK. The project aims to improve death, dying and bereavement care for trans and gender-diverse people. Hayhust encourages LGBTQ2S+ people to advocate for ourselves and others by learning more about our local end-of-life and funeral-care providers. He suggests calling or visiting them before we’re in more urgent need of their services due to a terminal diagnosis or an unexpected death. This kind of information-gathering can help us figure out which places in our community to avoid or engage more strategically with, and where we’re more likely to be met with understanding, respect and kindness.

Hayhurst is the reason I found myself phoning a local funeral home the other day to ask if they have experience with LGBTQ2S+-inclusive death care. I was nervous before I called, making sure to write down my questions in advance in case my mind went blank as soon as someone picked up the phone. I wanted to know if their staff had cared for members of the LGBTQ2S+ community before, if they had the knowledge and skills to provide respectful death care to my non-binary partner and if they’d be welcoming to our queer family that includes four parents and three kids. I’m used to having to explain myself and my relationships to professionals or service providers and am practised at spotting the ones who seem hostile or unwelcoming.

I noticed my heart beating a little faster and my shoulders tensing up as I dialled, my body instinctively bracing for a potentially awkward encounter. What if the person who answered my call was homophobic or transphobic? My family and I live in an area with a population of around 90,000 people, and, as relatively recent arrivals to the region, I’m still trying to get a feel for how LGBTQ2S+-friendly certain people and spaces are. Here, I have a choice of three funeral homes, none of which have explicit statements about LGBTQ2S+ inclusion on their websites. I followed my instincts and called the one whose website seemed the most welcoming of diverse communities and, unlike the other two, didn’t include any references to the Catholic Church.

You can imagine my surprise and delight when the person on the other end of the line turned out to be Christie Doyle. Doyle greeted me with warmth and kindness, and when I asked about her experience with LGBTQ2S+-inclusive death care, she shared that she’s a lesbian who owns the funeral home with her wife. Doyle is a funeral director and embalmer who owns H.W. Wallace Cremation and Burial Centre in Duncan, B.C. We chatted for around 20 minutes, making arrangements for my partner and me to come in to learn more about our funeral pre-planning options, and also about how Doyle and her wife might more overtly convey their LGBTQ2S+ inclusivity through their website. Doyle, who kindly gave me permission to write about our conversation, said something during our call that stuck with me: “I’ve worked in the funeral industry for 20 years and no one has ever called me to ask who the most inclusive funeral provider would be.”


“When I think about queering death, I think about all the ways that LGBTQ2S+ people and communities are adept at navigating, avoiding, subverting and transforming systems and institutions not built for us.”

Doyle’s comment has me thinking about why more of us aren’t calling or visiting our local funeral homes or hospice care providers to find out how LGBTQ2S+-inclusive they are. There are a lot of potential reasons why—maybe we’re too busy surviving, this kind of outreach is inaccessible to us or dealing with anything death-related feels overwhelming. Still, when I think about queering death, I think about all the ways that LGBTQ2S+ people and communities are adept at navigating, avoiding, subverting and transforming systems and institutions not built for us. We know how to advocate for ourselves and each other in the face of systemic and institutional gaps, failures, barriers and harms and are skilled at building community-led alternatives to those systems and institutions, often with limited resources. My hope is for us to become more capable of intentionally applying these skills to death and dying as a means of enacting our self-determination, resisting oppression and caring for ourselves and each other.

The instinct to brace myself for potential discrimination before calling a funeral home is rooted in my past experiences with healthcare and other institutions. I’m not unique in this regard. Hayhurst points to how prior experiences of healthcare discrimination or denial of care can become a major barrier for trans and non-binary people when planning for their end-of-life care. “All of those instances [of discrimination] add up, and you don’t forget that kind of thing,” Hayhurst says. “So when you reach a point where you have a terminal illness or you need to start looking into hospices or carers coming into your home, you’ve already got that apprehension.” He adds, “You expect that you’re not going to be treated the same as everybody else and that people aren’t going to understand what your needs might be.”

Many communities—including LGBTQ2S+ people; Black, Indigenous and people of colour; disabled people; and people who are poor, houseless or undocumented—face systemic barriers to accessing end-of-life care. When they are able to access care, people from these communities are more likely to experience inequitable, discriminatory or even harmful care, according to a 2021 research scan on inequities in end-of-life care. In some parts of the U.S., for example, the only available hospice care services are affiliated with faith-based organizations. This can create added barriers for LGBTQ2S+ people when those faiths are not welcoming to—or are overtly discriminatory toward—us. When asked about their fears around end of life, older LGBTQ2S+ Canadians reported being afraid of having to go back into the closet in order to access needed end-of-life care in settings like long-term care facilities. Some LGBTQ2S+ people also report altering their presentation or their home environments in order to conceal their sexual or gender identities from home hospice care providers.

After death, LGBTQ2S+ people, Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and others on mainstream death care’s margins may be confronted by a funeral industry ill-equipped to meet their diverse and culturally specific needs. This isn’t the case everywhere, as demonstrated by my recent interaction with Doyle. Within the wider funeral industry, there are providers dedicated to providing culturally appropriate care to their communities, like the Black-owned funeral homes who play an integral role in keeping African American mourning practices and burial traditions alive in the U.S. But while the funeral industry is adapting its practices to reflect the changing desires of the people and communities who use its services, and many people inside the industry are working hard to make it more inclusive, it still tends to be designed around the needs of an imagined consumer who’s straight, white and cis.

High funeral costs are another barrier, driving people to use crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe or Fund the Funeral to pay for their loved ones’ funeral expenses. The National Funeral Directors’ Association estimates that in 2021, the median cost of a funeral with burial in the U.S. was $7,848, while the median cost of a funeral with cremation was $6,970. Figuring out how to pay for a funeral can be an added stressor when you’re dealing with a loved one’s death, and is an all-too-familiar reality for the higher proportion of LGBTQ2S+ people living in poverty. It’s conditions like these that have led groups like the Brave Space Alliance, a Chicago-based Black- and trans-led LGBTQ2S+ community centre, to launch the Dignity Project. It offers grants of up to USD $6,000 to cover trans community members’ funeral costs as well as a name-change clinic and assistance with creating living wills to help ensure trans people’s identities are respected in death.

I still remember how unprepared I felt almost a decade ago when I walked into a funeral home to arrange my mom’s cremation. Morgan Yarborough, a funeral director who works as services manager at Recompose, a green funeral home in Seattle specializing in human composting, points to how difficult it can be to advocate for ourselves and our loved ones when dealing with a death. Yarborough says, “It can be hard to reject or question what’s given to you or set as a standard, especially if you’re grieving a recent death.” She gives the example of the service packages often sold by funeral homes, noting that “many people don’t know that you can go to a funeral home and pick apart the services they offer. You don’t have to just buy one of their packages.” They go on to add, “You can advocate for yourself, and you can educate yourself. It’s hard when you’re grieving, but it’s important.” Yarborough is passionate about equipping LGBTQ2S+ people with the knowledge and information they need to make informed choices about funeral care. In addition to helping create a queer-, trans- and poly-affirming space at Recompose, Yarborough dedicates time to community education focused on helping other younger queer people learn about community-led death care alternatives like home funerals.

I didn’t know home funerals were possible—or even legal—until a few years ago when I read Lucinda Herring’s book Reimagining Death: Stories and Practical Wisdom for Home Funerals and Green Burials. While the rules and regulations governing these practices vary by state and province, we likely have more options than we think when it comes to things like washing and dressing our loved ones’ bodies or keeping them at home for hours or days so we have the time we need to say goodbye. While these practices may not be appealing, feasible or culturally appropriate for everyone, the queer punk in me likes the idea of bringing a DIY ethos to death care (and potentially saving some money in the process), and the queer witch in me is drawn to the possibility of having the space and time to bring more ritual, creativity and collective care into the process of tending to our dead.

“Caring for someone or looking after them when they die doesn’t have to be seen as something bad that we have to shut out or be scared of…. It’s a part of living and it’s a part of us. It’s part of being a community.”

Part of me wishes I could avoid mainstream end-of-life and funeral care altogether in favour of queer community-led models of death care grounded in mutual aid. I like imagining a world where we’d have the option of reaching out to a local queer community death care collective for help when we or someone close to us is dying, with a wraparound model encompassing both end-of-life and funeral care. When I ask Yarborough what she imagines, she describes a queer death care co-op that offers funeral services alongside other supports like “legal help before or after death, holistic care, grief groups, acupuncture and trauma- and grief-informed massage therapy.” Hayhurst shares a similar vision of collective, LGBTQ2S+ community-led care, imagining an intergenerational living space where community members care for each other at all stages of their lives, including after death. Reflecting on his own experiences in death care, Hayhurst says, “Caring for someone or looking after them when they die doesn’t have to be seen as something bad that we have to shut out or be scared of.” Rather, he emphasizes, “It’s a part of living and it’s a part of us. It’s part of being a community.”

Community-led solutions are only part of the answer, though, especially when we’re dealing with something as vast and complex as end-of-life and funeral care—systems that are professionalized, highly regulated, resource-intensive and tied to profit-driven industries. That’s why I’m interested in how LGBTQ2S+ people and communities might become more adept at understanding and navigating the end-of-life and funeral care options currently available to us while dreaming queerer possibilities into being. I don’t have a friendly neighbourhood radical queer death care collective to call—at least not yet, though a friend and I keep talking about starting one in our community—but we can each find ways to become more equipped to advocate and care for ourselves and our loved ones at end of life and after death.

If you’re curious about where to start, you might consider taking Hayhurst’s advice, like I did, and giving your local hospice or funeral home a call, or having conversations with the important people in your life about what you do and don’t want for your end-of-life or funeral care. You could research your state or provincial requirements for appointing a healthcare decision-maker and what’s needed to help ensure your identity and wishes are honoured after death, which can be especially important for trans and non-binary people. Got legal training, bureaucracy-busting skills or some funds to spare? Find ways to help LGBTQ2S+ people in your community complete needed end-of-life paperwork, legally change their names or gender markers, or create a mutual aid–based funeral fund accessible to anyone who needs it. Keen to take matters into your own hands? Use pod mapping to help spark conversations about community-led end-of-life care, or learn more about home funerals so you can start building the knowledge and skills you need to help others in your community access them. You might also consider taking a death doula course, which I think of as being akin to first aid training—a way to learn needed skills that are helpful in our communities.

As for myself, I’m going to talk to Doyle and the local hospice where I volunteer about setting up a hospice and funeral-care information area at our local Pride festival this June, and am also planning to co-host a death-themed games night with a trans death doula who’s a friend of mine. I want other LGBTQ2S+ people where I live to know they have community members to turn to as they contemplate their mortality or plan for end of life, and to do this in ways that strengthen the relationships of support and care so crucial to queer and trans people’s lives.

Inside the Queering Death series…

1. Xtra senior editor, politics, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk interviews series writer Zena Sharman on the scope of the series, introducing readers to the topic and upcoming themes 
2. We live queer lives, and thus should die queer deaths. Find out what exactly this means, and about some of the people who have already done so. 
3. End-of-life planning doesn’t have to be the beige and bureaucratic; it can be “wonderfully queer,” and we explain how. 
4. The death care industry wasn’t created for us, our families or our relationships—but we can take matters into our own hands and away from these institutions.
5. It might sound taboo, but it is possible to bring pleasure and eroticism into the end stages of life. And why not increase queer joy whenever we can? 
6. Dominant narratives of grief don’t suit our realities, so let’s turn them on their heads and figure out what grief looks like from an LGBTQ2S+ perspective.

Next up: Pleasure and eroticism can be huge parts of queer life, and they can be important parts of queer death too. Learn more about incorporating these elements into you and your loved ones’ dying days in the next instalment of our series.

Zena Sharman is a writer, speaker, strategist, LGBTQ+ health advocate and death doula. She's the author of three books, including The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory and Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021) and the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016).

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