This past December, around 100 homeless individuals and supporters marched down 14th Street in Washington, D.C., holding a wood coffin and signs with the names of those who died that year. The group chanted “What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now!” (NPR). In this vigil as protest, the homeless of D.C. are demanding resources to prolong life (housing, health services, etc.) and, through the remembrance of individuals, putting names to those often forgotten.
I was pulled into this story and began to wonder how we memorialize and bury the homeless, and how we can do better. I asked experts on the subject of death to reflect on these questions and in their own words share their experiences and thoughts. Their insights also provide us calls to action.
Katherine Crouch is a PhD student researching the practice of mortuary archaeology in the UK at University of Manchester.
I live in a city that is very much struggling with homelessness and in the past few weeks alone there have been several deaths within the community from exposure, violence and murder. There appears to be quite a strong sense of camaraderie amongst the homeless here and they take an active role in making sure such deaths do not pass unmarked. In one instance where a young man was found dead in a tent, street support services worked in partnership with the community to organize a vigil/memorial service, as well as erect a memorial plaque to commemorate both the life that he lived and the spot where he died. On the whole, however, I think most memorials probably tend to be quite ephemeral.
M Rich is a PNW-based community organizer and advocate who talks a lot about feminism, death-positivity, and reproductive justice.
Access to a good death, to quality end-of-life care, is a privilege. The people who are most likely to have access to a death that is dignified and well-managed are the people who are most likely to also have healthcare, a family, consistent income, no addiction, no mental illness, a home. Those who are the most marginalized by our systems of inequality are the least likely to have access to the kind of end-of-life care us death positive nerds work hard to curate. When we consider the intersections of death positivity and equity, we have to ask ourselves ‘who isn’t at the table? who are we forgetting? who needs us most?’
People who live and die on the street cannot access the network of end-of-life care we rely on to pass without pain and with family by our sides. With no direct outreach service done to those dying while living on the street, homeless folks can’t access a good death simply because we cannot house them. This means that folks who are already so systemically marginalized that they have no home and no network are the most likely to die alone and without the end-of-life care we associate with dignity and comfort. While some cities, like Seattle, offer a semi-annual ceremony to memorialize those who died on the street with no family to claim them, it is not a nationally recognized nor common practice. We don’t, culturally, afford homeless folks dignity in life nor in death. Together, working with folks who are homeless, we can create change. Start by asking yourself and your community: How are homeless people in your city or town dying? Do you know where there bodies go? Can you visit their potter’s field? How can we, as folks concerned with death and dying and access, address this issue?
Sarah Chavez is the Executive Director of Order of the Good Death, a historian, and a museum curator. She also co-founded the site Death and the Maiden.
Often, homeless people of all ages are not dying from what we consider to be ‘natural causes’, they’re dying from neglect and lack of access to the most basic of needs – clean water, shelter and healthy food. Such deaths are untimely and preventable, resulting in something many of us fear most – a bad death. Throughout history, this lack of privilege and bodily autonomy can also follow people into death. During the 18th and 19th centuries when corpses were in great demand for medical students to learn and advance in their field, it was the poor and socially marginalized population that was the most vulnerable to being claimed by resurrectionists or body snatchers. Even today, in some places unclaimed bodies have been appropriated for use in medical schools or institutions.
Confronting and changing the systems and circumstances that lead to homelessness are paramount, but admittedly take time. Many people may want to do something but feel helpless or overwhelmed with where to begin, but there are things you can do:
- Find out if there’s a hospice that serves the homeless, like The Inn Between, and volunteer.
- Consider donating your remains to science. If we can create an abundance of donations it will hopefully eliminate the “need” to use the bodies of those who are not afforded a choice.
- Bear witness. Over the years and in multiple cities I’ve attended funeral services for unclaimed individuals, many of them homeless. These are typically hosted by the county and held annually. Other organizations like Garden of Innocence, provide services specifically for unclaimed or homeless children.
Heather Ace Ratcliff is a former mortician and current disability rights activist. She has been featured talking about her invisible disability, Ehlers-Danlos Disease – III, at the Guardian and the Economist, as well as on the podcast “Off the Record.” Poems about her disability have been featured in Breath & Shadow. She tweets @mortuaryreport, blogs at mortuaryreport.com, and is the proud creator of Stay Weird, Be Kind (#swbk, stayweirdbekind.com).
Miami Dade College’s campus has a stubby brick building tucked in the back corner especially for us; the building is split into two: a classroom and an embalming lab. The bodies we embalm every Friday night are the bodies of the homeless and the indigent, donated to us for learning in absence of an estate or family who can afford the cost of funeral arrangements. Their bodies are always wrapped in white body bags, which seem like a bad idea. We associate the color black with death; the crinkly, light-colored plastic is the opposite of what we were expecting. It’s a clean color. Our number-one work material is blood. Messy and red, sometimes clotted to a dark stain. Black plastic hides that. White doesn’t.
She’s only 48 hours dead, hardly cooled – the reason why her skin looks so fresh and her face beatific. Her outward beauty does little to parlay the complicated tangle of her venous system, however. The missing leg means the circulatory part of her circulatory system hits a brick wall instead of a roundabout back to the heart, and a single-point injection isn’t going to cut it if we actually want preservation. I can garner a wager on cause of death: heart-disease complications from diabetes.
We finish embalming early despite the complications, and there’s something regal about her that quietly demands just a little more attention than I usually give. I rarely pull out the travel case of Dodge cosmetics, focusing instead on embalming practice, but for her it simply seems like the right thing to do. I brush the springy curls of short hair away from her eyes. It takes a few minutes for me to mix cream foundations on the top of my glove, trying to match her unique complexion as I brush the makeup gently onto her cheeks and over the bridge of her nose.
With the foundation mixed and spread across her face, I dab a touch of pink blush to her cheeks, her chin and above her eyebrows. The tinted fluid does a lot to restore natural color but it can’t shoulder the burden on its own. There’s no mascara, no eyeliner or shadow in the kit – although truth be told, she doesn’t look like the kind of woman who’d take the time with putting on a full face every morning, anyways. Before we slip her back into the white body bag, I gently line her lips with a darker shade of red. Her lips stand out against the white, contrasted too against the darkness of her skin. She looks beautiful.
Maybe the white body bag wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.
Thomas Lynch, funeral director and author, wrote in his book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade that it is wise to treat the bodies of the newly dead “tenderly, carefully, with honor.” These words are stolid, words that feel firm and somehow right. Regardless of the station the person held in life, I am proud that I treat every single decedent tenderly, carefully, and with honor throughout my entire career.