In the afterglow of marriage equality coming to Utah I thought back to the time when it would have been so good to have been married to my partner, Les, who passed away from cancer 17 years ago.
The salt that was rubbed in my freshly opened wounds that day stung for years and continues to remind me of why marriage equality is so important.
Les died on a Saturday morning surrounded by a few close friends and his sister Norma Jean. I was cradling him in my arms with my daughter, Auri, holding his hand.
Later that afternoon his friend Lynne along with Auri and Norma Jean took me to the mortuary to make arrangements for his cremation and settle the business there. The mortician sat us at a small round table and began asking questions.
I answered his first question, at which point he looked at me and said, "What is your relationship to the deceased?" I told him that we were in a relationship and that I had Les’ durable power of attorney and was the executor of his estate, to which he responded, "I will only speak to the next of kin. Who is the next of kin here?"
The dismissive and sneering tone in his voice was devastating.
I told him that I was the only person who knew what to do here and that Les had not discussed any of this with anyone else. Again dismissing me completely, he looked around the table and asked who Les’ next of kin was. We all looked at Norma Jean, but she spoke up and said she had no idea what any of Les’ desires were and that I was the only one who could handle this.
The mortician said he would only speak to Norma Jean and began asking her his questions. Norma would look at me for an answer, I would give it to her and then she had to turn to the mortician and repeat it. This went on for the better part of an hour with both rage and grief swelling up inside of me with each succeeding question.
The mortician wouldn’t even look at me and proceeded as if I hadn’t been at the table.
In the midst of the shock and grief that enveloped me that day I was also filled with the awful reminder that I meant nothing in the eyes of the law where Les was concerned. The mortician may have been following the letter of the law, but his heartless disregard for my humanity was so far beyond the pale that still to this day I have a hard time believing it happened.
Les and I had joined our bank accounts from the first month we were together. We joined our households into one house that we owned and paid for together. Our hearts and lives and clothes and pets and friends and family were inseparably bound in every way imaginable.
A marriage certificate would not have made us anymore married than we already were. But it would have spared me the indignity of being ignored on the day of Les’ death by a mortician with a heart of stone.
He would have been forced by law to acknowledge me as Les’ husband and respect the fact that I was the only person alive who knew what to do on the day of his death.
Marriage equality is not just some ethereal concept born out of the desire to have what everyone else has. It’s in the everyday workings of life and in the intricacies of choices that are fundamental to all people who’ve chosen to join their lives together as Les and I did.
This is a very personal victory for me and it’s helping bring yet another bit of closure to this long and winding healing process. It doesn’t quite seem real yet, but I know it is and I’m grateful to be alive to see it.
Tom Clark is a fine art photographer living and working in Utah for the past five years. He is a hands-on dad and grandpa who has a great love and respect for Utah and its wild, epic beauty.
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