Identity erasure doesn’t end when trans people die. What can be done to ensure that trans identities are protected in death?
by Princess Patoine
When a person dies the legal next of kin is granted power over their body and decides what happens to it. For many transgender people who pass away, their legal next of kin is an unsupportive family member, who has power to choose what they want to do with the deceased. This results in many trans people being dead-named and misgendered in obituaries, and being buried in clothing that does not represent who they were in life. It’s a story that many of us are, unfortunately, familiar with.
Trans people are one of the most targeted groups of people in the country, specifically, Black trans women. Just last year in the U.S. alone, 44 trans people were murdered, making 2020 the worst year on record for transphobic violence. They constantly face discrimination, rejection, violence, and death just for living as themselves. Then, as a final insult, there is the violence many of them face in death by having their identity erased by transphobic family members who did not accept them as they were.
An article by Order of the Good Death, an organization dedicated to educating people about, and preparing them for death, featured interviews with trans people asking them if they were aware of anything they could do to ensure that their identities were protected and respected in death. They all had similar answers: they all knew something had to be done, but didn’t know what they could do. They also assumed they would die before their partners, who would make sure that they were buried as themselves. Sadly, this is not always the case.
In Connecticut, your spouse or legal next of kin can decide how to dispose of your remains, even if you have a written document stating how you would like to be disposed of. However, if you are not married, you can appoint someone to have custody of your remains, and the right to dispose of them. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance’s website, “as of October 1, 2005, Connecticut citizens have the right to declare their own wishes for the disposition of their body. This declaration will be legally binding. In addition, citizens may appoint an agent to carry out those directions.”.
There is a document called an advanced directive, which includes a living will that contains instructions about medical care, and a medical power of attorney, which allows a person to choose someone to make medical decisions on their behalf. However, not all states allow the power of attorney to make decisions after death, as their authority often ends at the time of death. In Connecticut, though, the medical power of attorney can make funeral-related decisions, so long as it is explicitly stated on the advanced directive that they may do so. If not made clear, the authority will expire upon death.
There is also the option of an Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains form, which is a lengthy name for a document you can fill out to appoint someone to make decisions for you regarding funeral arrangements and what is to happen with your body. This form seems to be the better of the two when it comes to body disposition and funeral-related arrangements, especially for trans people looking to make sure that their identity is protected post-mortem. It is recommended to be as specific as possible when filling out the form, to ensure that all wishes are abided by.
Another important issue that needs to be addressed is the misgendering and dead-naming of trans individuals in obituaries. This can be avoided by appointing a lawyer, designated agent, or trusted loved one to write an obituary for you, or by writing one yourself. This will ensure that you are referred to and talked about in the correct manner.
Something that may have crossed many trans people’s minds, is if they are allowed to have a name other than their legal name on a headstone. According to an interview Order of the Good Death had with Toni-King Rose, an advocate for gender inclusivity and acceptance within death services, many U.S. cemeteries are privately owned, so they’re allowed to make their own rules, or Cemetery Rules and Regulations, as they’re called. These regulations regarding headstones are often more concerned about the sizing, material, and type of headstone or grave marker, rather than the name written on it. Certainly, you’ve seen at least a few headstones with nicknames on them. Graveyards and burial grounds with religious associations have their own sets of rules as well, and can be a tad more difficult to navigate. If you are unsure about a cemetery or graveyard’s policy on this, ask for their Rules and Regulations.
Another good way for trans people to ensure that they, and their final wishes, are honored correctly is to have trusted loved ones care for their body, and one of the best ways to do that is to have a home funeral. In Connecticut, home funerals are legal so long as a licensed funeral director or embalmer is hired to oversee the final disposition of the body, which includes things such as transportation of the deceased, filling out the death certificate, assistance in arranging a cremation or burial, embalming the body if it is desired, and other, similar services. Loved ones can take it upon themselves to not only arrange decorations and ceremonies, but to also bathe, groom, dress, and position the body. This kind of intimacy allows loved ones to spend valuable time with the deceased, and can help with grief and mourning. Information regarding body care and home funerals can be found online, such as on the National Home Funeral Alliance website.
Not many people want to think about their final wishes, and often find it depressing, scary, and taboo to talk about such things. However, it is important to know that you have the tools to protect your identity post-mortem, even if you do not have people in your life that respect and accept you in all your glory. Having these discussions with trusted people and creating a death plan is a good start in making sure that upon death, you remain yourself, and are laid to rest and celebrated in the way that you wish.