by Riley Valentine
Death sits in a special way in the bayou. Cajuns live through oral history. After a funeral we come together, remember the dead, and tell stories. The dead are absorbed into our mythos. In this way, they live on.
Now – sitting at my desk, thinking about the dead mounting in the bayous, the stories escape me. My queer identity nestles inside my Cajun identity. I express my queerness in ways distinctly Cajun – the playful movement between the gendered pathways of a community that expresses gendered expectations in deeply matriarchal ways.
The ways COVID-19 hit the Cajun community remind me of the stories of how AIDS impacted my queer elders. There is a distinct way to have a good death in the bayou. COVID-19 took my cultural understanding of death and crumbled it. Death no longer meant a process–knowing that the dead always had family around them, were dressed and cared for as they were placed into the casket, were mourned and grieved, and remembered at the party after the funeral – to ambling around the apartment, rosary in hand.
How do you grieve the dead when you cannot touch them? Death is communal. It brings us together and the distance between the dead and the living is culturally wrong.
My queer identity is distinctly Cajun. I hold onto the stories of the dead, snatched away by AIDS, through oral history–in the same way that I remember the ones who have passed from COVID-19. I remember them through stories. As my family member struggles on a ventilator, my gut wrenches, and I remember our complicated relationship. Likewise, I remember the stories of friends of friends dying alone in hospitals, without the kindness of touch.
These are bad deaths – preventable deaths which result in people dying alone, grieving alone, or with a limited one or two people. The discussion of queer death sits with what it means to have a Cajun death. Our peculiar insular traditions, unique to our people. A queer death has always been synonymous with a bad death. To die queerly is to die isolated. It is not to die as a queer person, it is to die in such a way that you are prevented from being loved and cared for throughout the process of passing on. The queerness of this pandemic is not its oddity, nor a quality of difference. Instead, it is a distinct disorientation from death.
A death that is muted cannot celebrate or remember the entirety of a person. Cajun death rituals have always been queer to outsiders. The tender touches. The absorption of the dead into a story. We orient ourselves towards death. COVID-19 calls for a different orientation. This disorientation is one which sits in queer memory. It is disturbing. A good death requires touch. Body bags are an affront. Limited-attendance funerals require grieving from afar, locked into solitary pain. Skin that cannot be touched is a tragedy. A disoriented death is a terrible thing.
Riley Clare Valentine is an educator, activist, and independent scholar. They are completing their Ph.D. in Political Science at Louisiana State University, and have transitioned from academia to teaching history at a high school level. They have been a practicing street medic since Occupy Atlanta. Their work can be found in The Activist History Review among other sources. Valentine’s work focuses on language, neoliberalism, and care ethics.