We were fortunate to have had our most recent Death Café Orlando gathering take place on a dark and stormy summer’s afternoon. The inclement weather and the homey nature of our meeting place were the key components for a hotbed of intellectual intimacy on par with the infamous year without a summer (the balmy progenitor of M. Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s Vampyre story).
I’d hesitate to identify a routine in our meetings, but typically our group tends to tour a diverse spread of ‘trending topics’ in death positivity and death awareness, from whence we might wax philosophically or share our ‘what if–?’ scenarios. Our eighth regional session broke from the mold.
A year and a day ago today, thousands of lives, including my own, changed. This past month, I wrote a brief piece about the impact from that change in my life and in the life of my friend (referred to by his chosen name, “Franco”) for Artborne. (Read the .pdf version here!)
If you read no other part of this article, then please at least read this quote from Franco:
The tattoo was a way for me to contribute, even a little, to help our community rebuild … There’s a sense of feeling like I have to do something or give my life meaning because I was left alive of it all in the general sense. The feeling that there were and are people out there who hate us so much that they’ll commit these heinous acts. That a place meant as a safe space, meant as a place where you can truly be yourself, can get ripped away in the span of one night.
“Your voice reminds me of Nomi from Sense8–have you seen that? Do you know who I’m talking about?”
Todd and I met on a whim of chance. It’s Gay Days weekend, an event that partially extends to the Walt Disney World resort, and it’s the first since what happened at Pulse. Todd came to the concierge counter to assist us, even though a woman was already at that station, also available to help us. Within the first few words we exchanged, I knew that Todd was gay, and he knew that I’m trans (even if he, like many others, are not quite certain of ‘where’ my transition journey is headed).
I wanted my triumphant return to this blog to be more personal, or at least more peppy: a zippy analysis of grief and ritual in outer space (see: Guardians of the Galaxy and Covenant), intergenerational relationships connecting at a nexus of death in popular media (a.k.a., the return of Twin Peaks), a narrative about using social media to stay connecting with the ailing and the grieving… but, due to circumstance, this is instead an extremely didactic post about misconceptions about HIV/AIDS and the funeral arts in the year 2017.
The premise is innocent enough. In one of the popular death and death care forums founded by one of the prominent and popular death professionals on social media, someone asked a series of basic questions about embalming, including “What about HIV or aids? How do you handle that? With the aids/HIV thing, or any disease, does it continue to live after the host has died? For how long?”
For one of my theology courses, I have the task of interviewing at least one ministry professional and/or end of life lay care professional per unit; ideally, this is meant to demonstrate some above and beyond level of commitment to the course material to my course instructor, and more to the point, it’s probably meant to reinforce ideas learned from the material itself in order to cement a learned understanding of the doctrine.
However, that just hasn’t been… exactly what’s come of it.
“I want us to keep in touch.” That was what Chaplain P said after I pushed the ‘end’ button on my recorder. “I want to keep in touch over this summer and have you shadow our chaplains after your surgery.”
Later, she emailed me into a cc’d email to a colleague at the hospice I’m already volunteering at. I replied saying ‘thank you’ and told her I was in the process of transcribing out interview. She replied back. “You have the heart for this work. You definitely have the desire and the compassion for the area you are pursuing.”
I’ve been enrolled in my palliative care course in my theology program for just a little over a month, over which time I’ve done several interviews with professionals in the spiritual health ministry discipline in the trauma, intensive care, end of life and funerary fields, all of whom have not-so-subtly pushed the envelope about social trends of homophobia, transphobia, classism and the relationship between human value and supernatural work ethic.
It’s been a challenge analyzing those view points in the lens of the course, which of course wants me to read spiritual autobiographies of men who were privileged enough to die of debilitating disorders that did not break their minds with the help of several hundred thousands of dollars’ worth of in-home medical equipment and rotating caretakers–and G-d, of course–and to enforce the logic of healthcare directives that prioritize the long term impacts on the immortal soul over the insignificant trifles of the mortal flesh.
Challenging, because I mostly because I find agreeing with these theologians, and their theology. And I despise their churches.
On the first day of my INELDA death doula training in Raleigh, NC, I sat at a table with a woman who was living and working in the City part-time in 2001 who happened to have commuted back to PA on the day of 9/11 as well as with a woman who lived in Blacksburg, VA, where Virginia Tech sits at the center.
Our facilitator is INELDA Executive Director, Henry Fersko-Weiss, a man who follows the school of The Good Death while carefully avoiding such terminology as if there were a hidden trademark. He urges volunteers in training and would-be professionals to commit to a zen-like state of utility to create the most selfless and supportive environment in the deathbed room for passing peaceably. Someone from the other side of the room asks “Will we be covering the deaths of children?” Another asks “Will we be covering deaths that aren’t planned and happen suddenly—like suicides or tragic deaths?”