Sonya Vatomsky is a writer whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, Hyperallergic, and other outlets.
For this community, “death isn't hypothetical or further down the line.”
Ariel Leigh is having a busy week. Between picking out movies to watch while recovering from his upcoming gender confirmation surgery and attending memorial events for the one-year anniversary of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, he’s sending me long emails about death, cake, and how those two things led him to a new career in hospice work catered specifically to the needs of the LGBT community.
Leigh is the host of Death Cafe Orlando, a quarterly event where people meet in a private residence to drink tea, nibble on sweets, and discuss death and dying in an open, nurturing environment. Death Cafes were first developed in 2011 by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based loosely around the “cafés mortels” the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz held in Europe a decade prior. The objective, according to the Death Cafe website, is to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives,” and nearly 5,000 individual cafes have been held in countries all over the world.
It’s all part of the death positive movement, which aims to break the culture of silence around death through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship. According to the Order of the Good Death, a group of death industry professionals and activists, death positivity “is not morbid, but displays a natural curiosity about the human condition.”
Leigh first attended Death Cafe Orlando several years ago, when it was hosted by the writer Sarah Elizabeth Walter and he was an academic studying interdisciplinary arts and literature. “Even though I was really into death art and death culture and death awareness,” he tells me, “I was also kind of purposefully walling myself into a place in my life where death had a magical quality and none of the mundane qualities, because that was the only way I was able to support myself emotionally through the initial stages of my transition.”
Becoming a Death Cafe regular stripped away death’s magical veneer—as did the suicides of two trans acquaintances within a six-month period. Both were misgendered by speakers at their funerals and interred with the names they had used prior to their transitions. Then, Pulse happened.
After the massacre at the LGBT nightclub, Leigh knew he had to switch gears and become more hands-on with death care. “I’ve been really lucky to know other people involved in various end-of-life and death services at different professional levels,” he tells me, “but virtually none of them are any kind of LGBT-identified.” One of his close friends was the on-duty medical examiner the night of the Pulse shooting and processed each of the 49 bodies that passed through the morgue. “She’s a gift that we all deserved and were lucky to have,” Leigh says, “but she’s cis and straight, so she felt that she was outside of what was going on, even though she was literally there.”
Though Death Cafes occur in most major cities, Orlando’s circumstances make for a unique community with specific needs. To understand the attendees, one must first understand the dynamics of Central Florida. Orlando is one of the gayest cities in America, ranked on access to LGBT health initiatives, community support, and LGBT-geared recreation. “I believe something along the lines of 4.1 percent of our population discloses identifying as LGB, and we’re considered the third best city to transition in after San Francisco and NYC,” Leigh tells me. “It is a place that is both trapped in time and evolving to match the expectations of our global tourism market, and everyone who lives here is affected by that. There’s a larger-than-life retail industry, three major theme parks, two tragic events caused by gun violence that picked up national media attention [Trayvon Martin’s murder and the Pulse massacre], and hundreds of bars and nightclubs that connect hundreds of thousands of people to one another with only a few degrees of separation.”
Orlando, perhaps more than most urban centers, urgently needs better death care for its LGBT citizens. “The death rate our community has experienced and is experiencing is abnormal,” Leigh says, “so part of [my and Sarah Elizabeth Walter’s] mission has been fanning those flames of outrage and becoming more social justice-oriented, because that’s what the quest for the enigmatic Good Death has come to mean for us.” He’s also a member of the Friends of Page Jackson cemetery project, run by Death Cafe Orlando regular Marnie Sears Bench, which aims to preserve the history of Orlando’s cemeteries. (“No small feat with the fact that all urban development in our state sits on top of swampland,” Leigh says.) The project’s name refers to Page Jackson Cemetery, “a lay name for a historic black cemetery that has been fated to disrepair, environmental catastrophe, littering, and bureaucracy,” Leigh explains. “It’s virtually only black American and migrant-worker cemeteries in the county that are like this.” While other nearby cemeteries are taken care of by the city and don’t see these same conditions, Page Jackson Cemetery is yet another example of how death disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, even as it comes for us all.
Leigh’s hospice training began in November 2016. Volunteers are given a primer on bereavement as well as some cursory training in identifying active dying, and the hospice world also provides access to interdisciplinary professionals who can offer firsthand support and knowledge learned from years of schooling and day-to-day practice. In addition to the training that goes along with hospice, Leigh is enrolled in a theology program as well as a counseling program. “I had the foresight to think that a huge part of working with LGBT folk planning their deaths or coming to terms with deaths in their community is going to be having the ability to navigate religious trauma,” Leigh says.
Leigh has already been assigned to five different hospice cases and is looking forward to Orlando’s next Death Cafe, though he describes taking on the facilitator role shortly after Pulse as sobering. “My attitude toward the immediacy of death was challenged in a way that I, even as a trans and Jewish person, was sheltered from when my aspirations were strictly academic,” he says. “Death isn’t hypothetical or further down the line—not for the LGBT community at large, and definitely not for the LGBT community of Orlando or the non-white Orlando population—it’s here and now and tomorrow and the day after that.”