For many of us, our idea of funerals, of mourning, comes from watching Six Feet Under. Others in our community remember a time, not so long ago, when our friends were dying in large numbers in a viral holocaust.
Facing the end of life, the passing of someone close to us, can be a particularly tough time for gays and lesbians, a time when we’re most vulnerable and often unaware of where to find gay-positive professional support.
Evelyn Richter, Ottawa funeral celebrant, is there to help. A former Unitarian minister, Richter is braving this new territory in a secular and non-denominational way. And she’s particularly interested in helping the queer community.
“There’s the disconnection and woundedness that a lot of people in our community feel to their childhood church, that they could no longer participate fully there,” Richter says. “It’s really important for the people left behind to have something genuine and authentic. There was a niche that needed to be filled.”
Enter Richter and a third option.
With a variety of approaches at her disposal from the secular to the non-denominational or interfaith, Richter tends to a humanistic approach. She focusses not on the promises of an afterlife, but on those left behind.
When a same-sex spouse dies, Richter helps the survivor deal with particular challenges.
“First of all, how well do you get along with your extended family?” Richter asks. There are added complications if there are children involved, particularly when the couple has failed to carefully define their expectations in legal documents. “I have quite a few experiences with that,” says Richter, “where one spouse dies and the other is left with a child, and the grandparents might come along and claim the child. Those things are still happening, unfortunately.”
As a minister, she’s also experienced family conflict – that’s a nice word for homophobia – during the ceremony itself. “Very often there might be one family member who didn’t allow the partner to come in, and that was always difficult.”
Richter is more optimistic about the future, though. “I think it’s going to be changing with the marriage laws, making it simpler for the spouse to be with the person.”
In the end, though, grief is grief, gay or straight.
In terms of her new line of work, Richter takes a positive approach to what could otherwise be a morbid experience.
“I like the wording of ‘celebrant,’ that it is a celebration of a person’s life rather than talking about the death.”