Rainbows in the Cemetery: LGBTQ+ Representation on Gravestones

Gravestones and memorials are just one piece of a large and tangled web for LGBTQ+ rights and representation in death and dying. We as a death community should think more about how queer people are represented in burial and in death. We need cemeteries to create spaces for our communities to be allowed to reflect their identities through their grave markers.

Author’s Note: I do not speak on behalf of all LGBTQ+ people, nor could I ever come close. I don’t even speak for all Bisexuals. I also realize that the acronym LGBTQ+ is limited in its representation, and for the sake of this article I have chosen it for brevity in my writing. I also use the term Queer, which for me is a personal identifier, but I acknowledge for others this may not be the same. The acronym LGBTQ+ refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and Two Spirit peoples, as well as those who identify as Pansexual, Questioning, Non-Binary, and other gender and sexuality minorities. I want to make a clear statement that everyone who identifies under the Rainbow is part of this conversation, and it is more complex than one small article. I do invite others who are in the death positive community into this conversation about representation of LGBTQ+ identity in cemeteries. This is just one small piece of a very complex tapestry that we all need to continue to work on, detangle, and recreate so all of us have the opportunity to a Good Death and proper representation in burial and memorialization.

Close your eyes and envision a cemetery. What do you see? Chances are you see rows of grey gravestones that are similar in shape and design. The monuments inside a cemetery are likely engraved with basic information: Name, Age, Birth and Death Date. There may be a symbol of memento mori, or the saying: ‘Loving Wife and Mother’, or ‘Loving Son and Uncle’ etched into the stone. These inscriptions are simple indicators of who is buried in the cemetery, and are snapshots of the life once lived by the dead.

But what about those interred who identified as LGBTQ+? Are there any indicators on these graves to tell you about their identity? Do you presume the person is straight and cis gendered? Better yet, why is this so important?

Considering the history of LGBTQ+ rights in North America, alongside the continued fight against oppression and violence, it makes sense, at least to me, to have our queer identity honoured in death.

Roadblocks to representation in burial and memorialization can appear anywhere from funeral directors, to church doctrines, cemetery regulations, next-of-kin laws, and homophobic families, just to name a few. This becomes even more complicated for Trans people who risk deadnaming and misgendering after their death with the laws varying across the States with different regulations for coroners and funeral homes. Though there are resources out there to help, we need more.




Gravestones and memorials are just one piece of a large and tangled web for LGBTQ+ rights and representation in death and dying. In honour of PRIDE, and the LGBTQ+ people in the Death Positive community, I want to explore the presence of queer identities in heteronormative cemetery spaces.

Gravescapes and Heteronormativity

Imagine living your whole life hidden from those around you, hidden in some ways even from yourself at times, knowing that if you dared to live your life authentically, you risk persecution, banishment, violence, and even murder. Then imagine that you gained the strength and courage to live that life authentically despite these very real risks, only to have your hard-fought identity erased by the stale grey shades of a muted tombstone.

Cemeteries are made up of more than just individual graves. Cemeteries are a collective expression of death within a community. Richard Morris[1], a writer and rhetorician, termed these as gravescapes: a space that includes the graves and gravestones along with the landscape they exist on. A gravescape works to gather people into a community that holds similar beliefs about life and death. Basically, an individual grave may have its own meaning, but its meaning is also linked to the collective of the entire cemetery.

In North American cemeteries, our gravescapes are largely heteronormative. By default we view these spaces as spaces for the bodies of non-queer people.

This heteronormative imaginary is made worse by the design of cemeteries themselves.[2] Popular traditional cemetery designs in North America favour the heteronormative gravescape, and when a queer person is buried within the confides of these styles, their identity is erased.

But, fear not! All is not bleak, there is a rise in representation of queerness in burial.

The Gay Vietnam Veterans Memorial – Congressional Cemetery

The most famous form of LGBTQ+ representation in a cemetery is in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. This cemetery was founded in 1807 as an Episcopal burial ground, and quickly became a popular burial ground for prominent Americans before falling into disrepair near the end of the 20th century. It is a traditional urban cemetery of its time, with rows of visually similar gravestones.

 A cemetery that is ‘forgotten’ has less to lose in the eyes of the public. 

The cemetery’s gravescape was first disrupted by the creation of the Gay Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1984, which is represented by the grave of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam War Veteran and LGBTQ+ Activist. With his gravestone, Matlovich wanted to create a space where LGBTQ+ service people could be remembered not just for their sacrifice, but their self-worth as queer people.

Matlovich had the memorial placed at his future grave site understanding that for queer people, our identities are often erased in death:

“Had I died in Vietnam when I hit the mine, I would have been just another dead Vietnam vet, you see. I would not have been a specifically gay Vietnam veteran who died for his country.” [3]

The design and location of the grave was deliberate. Matlovich himself had to search for a cemetery that would allow him to create this memorial, and even then, he faced other legal roadblocks. At the time the Congressional Cemetery was deteriorating, which meant that its administrators were more receptive to the idea of including this monument in their cemetery. A cemetery that is ‘forgotten’ has less to lose in the eyes of the public.




Matlovich purchased two adjacent plots—one for himself, and one for a future partner. He chose the location of these plots because of their proximity to two notable graves: those of the first and longtime director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and his colleague and friend, Clyde Tolson, who are believed by many to have been closeted lovers – a belief that clashed with Hoover’s war on gays. It is not clear how much their burial location influenced Matlovich’s decision, but he was aware how close they were to his plots when he purchased them.

He designed his tombstone with clear intent and care as a monument to celebrate his queer identity and life as a war vet. The decision to purchase a joint grave marker was very deliberate. He was single at the time, but wanted to assert that gay men could be in life-long loving relationships that end when both are buried side-by-side.

He chose reflective black granite to resemble the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. He placed pink triangles on the monument side-by-side. The first triangle is right-side up, a symbol worn by homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. The second is inverted, and is a symbol of the gay liberation movement—a movement that sought out equal and fair recognition politically, legally and culturally. These symbols are enhanced with the phrases “Never Again” and “Never Forget” engraved below each respectively.

Rainbows in the Cemetery: LGBTQ+ Representation on Gravestones

Image from atlasobscura.com

Instead of emblazoning it with his own name, he chose a more inclusive phrase: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran.” Most striking of all is the epitaph:

“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

The next design element is the tomb that lays over the plot. The tomb marker is in the same black granite and also disrupts the design of the rest of the cemetery, and forces any visitor to look to where the body is buried. His gay body rests in this location, and here it is for you to visit and remember. The tomb is adorned with a small decorative plaque from the United States government and engraved with the signature of President George H. W. Bush, signaling Matlovich’s status as a veteran and thanking him for his military service to the nation. This seemingly simple plaque was hard won by Matlovich and his legal team.

Matlovich was successful in creating a queer space in the cemetery, and more LGBTQ+ veterans, artists, and activists have not only been buried at the Congressional Cemetery, but also had their graves stones designed and engraved with clear markers of their queerness.

These graves are scattered across the cemetery, but nine graves rest close together and are unofficially called the “gay corner.” This location is close to an intersection of two pathways, and a bright red bench and shade tree have been added drawing people to the section and to the graves that reflect the authentic identity of the queer individuals who are interred there.

These include F. Warren O’Reilly and Emmanuel “Butch” Zeigler, who share the same dark granite design as Matlovich. Then there is the pink hued joint gravestone of Michael Hildebrand and Clyde Tolson. Both the colours and their distinct shapes help these graves to stand out in the cemetery.




The engravings are also significant. The memorial bench for Gittings and Lanhusen explicitly describes their relationship as partners and their wish to be married. Engraved on the joint grave of John Frey and Peter Morrisclearly is a romantic poem that clearly defines their gay love and commitment. The inscriptions vary, but their use to mark queer identity as a tool to prevent erasure can be seen as a form of queer activism after death.

As the marker on Franklin Kameny’s grave reads: “Gay is Good.”

Image: Alexandra Charitan

Memorial to a Marriage

Image from Woodlawn website

A similar act of disruption and queer activism can be found in Woodlawn Cemetery with the Memorial to a Marriage.

Woodlawn Cemetery is located in the Bronx and was established in 1863. It is a garden style cemetery, with highly decorative monuments that have attracted visitors for over a century.

In 2002, New York sculptor Patricia Cronin installed her own grave marker to symbolize her and her partner’s legacy as same-sex lovers in marriage. At the time, they could not legally be wed, and Cronin shared in an interview about the monument:

“My partner and I cannot get married. We have wills, health-care proxies, powers of attorney, and all of the legal forms one can have, but they all pertain to what happens if one of us should become incapacitated or die. It’s not about our life together; it’s about the end of it. So I thought, what I can’t have in life, I will have forever, in death.”

Like the graves in the Congressional Cemetery, Memorial to a Marriage has been created while the married couple were still young, alive, and healthy. Preplanning a burial like this is important to many LGBTQ+ to ensure they are not erased in death. Though Cronin and her partner, artist Deborah Kass, were legally married in 2011 the grave still remains as a significant example of inserting queerness into a cemetery.

In contrast to the Gay Vietnam Vet Memorial, Memorial to a Marriage uses a subtler and more subversive approach to disrupt the heteronormative gravescape. This memorial mimics the garden style of the rest of the cemetery, while at the same time subverting it with its queerness.

The original installation is one piece of white Carrara marble, carved by the artist herself. The installation depicts Corin and her wife in a post-sex embrace, frozen in a moment of life rather than a more traditional reflection of death as you might see in other statues of a similar style. The monument asks any visitor to be present in this queer moment of love. In 2011, the white marble statue needed to be replaced with a bronze version. Corin chose to use bronze as it wears down over time from touch. When she was researching cemeteries in Paris, she noticed how it tends to polish down when viewers frequently touched the same spot over time. She wanted to allow for this interactive wear to be part of their memorial.

The memorial shows a new normal by inserting lesbian love and sex within the same space as their heteronormative neighbours. The design speaks out against those who claim queer love and sex are unnatural, and the monument shows the married women as they truly are: in love and in their most natural state of beauty.

Other Examples of LGBTQ+ Representation in Cemeteries

There is a cemetery in Berlin that has its own Lesbian section. This section is located in the Georgen Parochial Protestant cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg, just north of Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany. In 2014, members of the Safia Association, a German society of older lesbians, acquired a 430-square-foot plot on church grounds that has room for 80 coffins and even more urns.

The group was given use of the cemetery area for 30 years in exchange for cleaning up and landscaping the area with the promise to be responsible for its upkeep.




No one has been buried there yet, but many spots have already been claimed. The Safia Association argues that hetero families have been buried together in the local cemeteries for generations, so why can’t they have their own spot? Why not indeed.

When VICE reporter Jessica Ware asked one of the women why this space was so important to them, they smiled and said:

“Death is a part of life; it’s about learning to live with it and accepting this. Lots of us don’t have families to be buried with. Instead, we want to lie with those we’ve fought alongside, loved, and lived with.”

Cemeteries such as the famous Brompton Cemetery in West London offer LGBTQ+ tours through a group called Queerly Departed. There is also Greenwood Cemetery in New York City that also has its own LGBTQ+ tours. Other cemeteries have even erected public LGBTQ+ war memorials, such as Cathedral City in Palm Springs, California, and National Cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona.

Not So Final Thoughts

Recorded history is how we are connected to and remember our past. This includes cemeteries and gravestones. When we erase LGBTQ+ identities within cemeteries, we erase part of our history. When we celebrate and honour individual’s authentic identities in these stones and carvings, we shine a light on history and help maintain a connection with the parts of the past that are too often forgotten.

As Dunn writes in his book on Queer Remembering: “At its heart, queer monumentality is about publicly acknowledging the meaningful moments and people from our collective pasts that have made our presents and futures more livable and empowering.”

We as a death community should think more about how queer people are represented in burial and in death. We need more cemeteries to create spaces for our communities to be allowed to reflect their identities through their grave markers. We need more funeral homes to hold services that celebrate these individuals for who they really were: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, Queer, Asexual, Two Spirited, Pansexual, Non-Binary and non-gender conforming.

Funeral homes like eco Life Celebrations, who recently organized the funeral for Egyptian Lesbian Activist Sarah Hezagi (including creating the beautiful and very queer casket), is a great example of positive change.

Our cemeteries should have gravestones in all the colours of the rainbow. Rays of light and love in the sea of grey.

If I have missed any cemeteries that have queer representation, please let me know in the comments below! I urge anyone in the death-positive community to join the conversation and help everyone within the LGBTQ+ community have the Good Death and Remembrance they deserve.


About the Author:

Rachel Osolen

Social Media Manager / Staff Writer

Rachel Osolen is the Social Media Manager and Staff Writer at TalkDeath. She is a seasoned writer with publications in poetry, academia, and short stories. She has a BA in English from Dalhousie University and an MLIS from the University of Alberta where her research focused on Digital Archives and Online Memorials; specifically The Hart Island Project. Her current writing and research focuses on Death Positivity, History, Folklore, and Culture.





Bibliography

[1] Morris, Richard. “Death on Display.” In Rhetorics of Display, edited by Lawrence J. Prelli. 204–26. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.

[2] I highly recommend reading the book Queerly Remembered: Rhetorics for Representing the GLBTQ Past by Thomas R. Dunn where he does a deeper dive into the history of monuments, cemeteries, and memory in the Queer community.  If you want to learn more about heteronormativity in the graveyard, and gravescapes it is definitely a good place to start.

[3]  Queerly Remembered: Rhetorics for Representing the GLBTQ Past by Thomas R. Dunn

Posted by Rachel Osolen

Social Media Manager / Staff Writer Rachel Osolen is the Social Media Manager and Staff Writer at TalkDeath. She is a seasoned writer with publications in poetry, academia, and short stories. She has a BA in English from Dalhousie University and an MLIS from the University of Alberta where her research focused on Digital Archives and Online Memorials; specifically The Hart Island Project. Her current writing and research focuses on Death Positivity, History, Folklore, and Culture.

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