Planning your own burial arrangements is tough. Having to sue your state to bring them to fruition is even worse. Yet that’s exactly what 74-year-old Navy veteran Madelynn Taylor had to do this week, after the Idaho Veterans Cemetery refused to place her ashes with those of her deceased wife. The cemetery claims that placing the two spouses together in death would violate state law: Only married couples can be buried alongside one another, and Idaho forbids any recognition of same-sex marriage. Taylor has sued, no doubt encouraged by a federal judge’s recent (and quickly stayed) ruling legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the state.
The case is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it grimly illustrates a phenomenon I’ve observed before: The sad role that death frequently plays in gay marriage lawsuits. The dominance of death in these suits is inevitable; the fight for marriage equality is, after all, a pragmatic battle to relieve the burdens that gay couples experience from legal discrimination—the most significant of which involve death. Gay couples’ inability to receive equal treatment from the state becomes most pressing when one partner’s life is drawing to a close. From hospital visits to insurance to funeral and burial arrangements, the surviving partner is constantly burdened in intricate and heartbreaking ways.
The second issue the case brings up pertains to the puzzle of homophobia. What, ultimately, do those who oppose marriage equality think they’re accomplishing by denying gay people equal rights? What good does it do anybody to pass laws that treat gay couples like legal strangers, that debase their relationships, demean their families, and degrade their own identities? I suppose that, for conservative Christians, keeping gay people legally disadvantaged might provide some abstract sense of comeuppance, punishing gays for living a sinful lifestyle. For some, anti-gay laws must serve as an enforcement of the moral order which, they believe, their religion prescribes.
Yet it’s hard to see anything moral about a law that prevents a 74-year-old Navy veteran from having her ashes placed next to her deceased wife. In the end, all of the empty rhetoric about “protecting marriage” from gay people merely serves as a cloak to justify vile discrimination like the kind Taylor currently faces. Some may think it is just to forbid Taylor from being buried next to the person she loved. But if the anti-gay right truly believes that a law preventing spouses from being buried side-by-side is ethical, then they subscribe to an ethical code utterly alien to American law.