Chosen family – making sure loved ones are respected

The loss of a close friend, the death of a life partner, even a long standing neighbour can hit us all hard. The processing of the loss along with the recollection of times well spent can be emotionally draining.

Yet for many as well as being emotional in and of itself, a friend or partner dying can also be a time when people can demonstrate harsh and unremitting cruelty. And unspoken truths about sexuality and identity are used against those mourning.

I am naming no-one but I’m sure many of us know stories of a person dying, their life partner is upset and processing the news. A relative arrives, reveals that they are the next of kin, take over control of the situation and exclude that same sex partner – the denial that the family member was LGBT+. There are too many cases that document the exclusion of the life partner – “you’re not married and I’m the sister/nephew/next of kin”. The power of the standing of “next of kin” has been used to whitewash over a truth about a same sex relationship that due to historical context or lack of legal protection has never been protected through a marriage or civil partnership.

That is why I have written to my local hospice to open a dialogue with them about people’s “chosen family”. Who do they wish to have decision over their effects and their send off? How do we, as a society, give some humane protection to those who have for years stood alongside, helped, cared and laughed and make sure that they are not cast aside in the sadness of the situation.

I am involved with three cases where the deceased was gay, and their family, wishing to close that chapter of their life, have disposed of the body and refused to share the burial location or where the ashes are scattered. This is cruel, wrong and I believe can be stopped.

Hospices and local authorities (for starters) where they are housing landlords should be empowered to have a definition of “chosen family” that would prevent the sidelining LGBT+ partners and friends.

Further, there should be a simple and national register that captures where a body or ashes are disposed of – accessible to all and requiring a public declaration by the relative who takes custody of the situation. The refusal to say where someone is buried is unnecessary and should not be withheld from anyone.

We should seek to tackle this sad and overlooked issue and conflict that has laid at the heart of the LGBT+ community for decades and we can begin to protect people when they are most upset and most vulnerable. We owe it to those who fought for the freedoms I enjoy to marry and be civil partnered.

I am asking for a declaration of “chosen family” and asking that this has precedent over the traditional next of kin. It will begin to tackle a long standing wrong and respect people’s individual wishes rather than family presumption, and sadly in many cases, prejudice.

That is why I have written to my local hospice to begin a dialogue – I’m delighted to say, they have agreed to meet and discuss this further. I don’t think this will be solved quickly. However we can start on what is a sensitive and important issue that impacts unduly cruelly on those affected.

* Ed Fordham is a councillor on Chesterfield Borough Council and runs Brockwell Books of Chesterfield, selling many thanks, not least ephemera he bought from Liber Books over the last 25 years.

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  • Mr Fordham makes relevant points, but I would add something he doesn’t mention.

    The issues he raises would not arise if everyone was responsible or informed enough to make a will. There should be a public campaign for every adult to do so.

  • Kay Kirkham 8th Sep '22 - 2:24pm

    Any couples potentially in this position could protect themselves in life by using a Power of Attorney over both money and health and in death through a will with their chosen executor. Sadly, this sometimes doesn’t happen and this situation plays out as Ed describes. When my husband was in hospital at the end of his life, I was able to cite a Lasting Power of Attorney made before we married and this had a significant effect on the way my views were treated even though we were married. Had we not been, it wold certainly have helped.

  • Anthony Durham 8th Sep '22 - 5:48pm

    David Raw is right about the importance of a will. Analogous horror stories abound, such as mine about the elderly neighbour who died intestate at the height of the pandemic.
    The Official Solicitor and Public Trustee is just one among many minor branches of government (Passport Agency, DVLA, Companies House, Environment Agency, etc) that ought to stand up for the rational interests of the wider community, but are too often Missing In Action. Failing to resource them properly costs society more in the long run.

  • Ed Shepherd 8th Sep '22 - 8:33pm

    Disposal of ashes or a burial site are very emotional issues of ongoing importance. Often it is desireable to conceal the location from people of ill intent. The location should not be a matter of public knowledge.

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