I’ve been a little preoccupied with death lately. Maybe it’s got to do with the time of year — the failing flowers, falling leaves and impending winter.
Maybe it’s because of the seemingly unnatural regularity and ferocity of natural disasters around the world, the tsunami in southeast Asia early this year, the hurricane in New Orleans last month, the earthquake in south Asia earlier this week. Maybe it’s because a village I visited not so long ago in Guatemala has been declared a mass grave after a mudslide buried everyone alive.
Maybe it’s because a friend is dying of leukemia. Maybe it’s because of George Hislop’s recent passing (see story for more information).
Last Sunday my partner and I were on our way to Thanksgiving dinner at my mom’s house. It was a gorgeous day, with a brilliant blue sky overhead. We were early so we decided to make a detour into the St James cemetery on Parliament St for a leisurely autumn walk.
Founded in 1844, St James is the oldest operating cemetery in the city. Though it’s now considered to be centrally located, at the time that it was opened it was out in the country.
The sprawling cemetery is the (presumably) final resting place of many figures of local historical importance, including War Of 1812 colonel James Givins, early government reform activist Robert Baldwin and various Fathers Of Confederation.
It’s an impressive place, full of import and solemn significance. In other words, it’s a downer.
There’s nothing like a cemetery to bring home the inevitability of death. It’s all there in cold hard stone. Born. Died. Remembered. Or not.
As we pondered the names and dates of those buried I got to thinking about the legacies we leave behind. Some people count on their children to carry on their memory. Others count on the great works of their lives to remember them to the world once they’re gone. Others still endow memorial awards in their names (see page four of the special Lesbian And Gay Community Appeal section in this issue) so that they won’t be forgotten.
Tombstones are just one more form of legacy, though at St James cemetery many are now more than 150 years old and the names and dates are illegible.
Even those that can be read provide scant information about those buried there. Family connections are noted, sometimes an occupation. In rare circumstances the cause of death. “Died of cholera,” reads one early grave marker.
On many tombstones the names of entire families are listed. As one would expect for the times, the wife was always listed as an adjunct of the male, often as “wife of above.” The phrase “husband of above” is nowhere to be found.
“If we’re going to be buried together,” my partner said, “don’t let me be listed as wife of above.”
“Certainly not. More like wife to the left of,” I joked.
Although the family groupings made for a fun time of sorting out which dead person was related to which other dead person and how, what stood out was the lack of recognition of same-sex relationships.
It’s not surprising. Same-sex relationships weren’t often acknowledged during the lifetimes of those entombed, why would they be acknowledged in death? But it got me wondering whether any of the seemingly unrelated but adjacent graves had a hidden significance, relationships that hadn’t been recorded on any granite markers.
It’s more likely that same-sex couples that had shared their lives together as unsanctioned companions would have been separated in death, their queer histories overwritten in their eulogies.
I recall an acquaintance once telling me that part of why the AIDS memorial in Cawthra Square Park was so important was that it gave people a place to go when the families of their deceased loved ones withheld the location of their beloveds’ burial sites.
A century from now will our queer descendents be able to recognize us as they stroll peacefully amidst our graves? Will Hislop be buried with the love of his life, Ronnie Shearer, who passed away in 1986? Will he be listed “husband of above”?