When a lifelong relationship is erased by a death certificate

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Monique Farmer

Julia and Annie in one of their French restaurants.

Julia and Annie in one of their French restaurants. Photo: Supplied

There's a wall of coffins, a box of tissues, mints in a bowl, and paperwork, lots of paperwork.

I'm at the same funeral home where I was less than three months ago, the first time for my father, this time for his sister, my beloved Aunt Julia. Numb doesn't begin to describe it.

There's some comfort in having the same funeral expert – a warm, pragmatic woman named Amanda. In front of her are the familiar yellow pages of the Death Registration Statement, which must be handwritten for the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. We start going through the facts: my aunt's family name, given name, date of death, where it occurred, place of birth …

Julia and Annie early in their relationship.

Julia and Annie early in their relationship. Photo: Supplied

The answers are easy until Amanda asks about my aunt's "marriage status" at the time of her death. I pause. For a long time. Together we look at all the options – so many are nearly right, but all are wrong.

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Married. Widow/Widower. De Facto. Divorced. Never Married. Unknown.

My aunt was gay, and her partner died 10 years ago after nearly three decades together. They were married, or at least they seemed that way to me. Their lives were as inter-mingled as my parents' were, perhaps even more so.

Julia and Annie in 2001 at the author's wedding.

Julia and Annie in 2001 at the author's wedding. Photo: Supplied

Julia and Annie ran a succession of French restaurants so nearly every waking hour was spent together. Annie, the chef, would leave for work around 11am to order produce in her thick Parisian accent and start cooking her traditional dishes, while my aunt would arrive later in the day armed with flowers from their garden to decorate every table, and run front-of-house. Mostly it was just the two of them in their last restaurant, Les Fleurs, plus a casual dishwasher on busy nights.

Yet they weren't legally married. So that didn't make Julia a widow, although she lived that way once Annie died. Julia couldn't bear the idea of a funeral, she couldn't put her "baby", as she referred to Annie, into the ground and be far from her. So she took the ashes home and kept them in her bedroom in a wooden box, eventually bringing the box with her from Queensland to Sydney when she moved closer to us.

My aunt's last home is like a museum to their lives together, every antique and ornament they'd loved, photos of Annie everywhere, so many frames showing them gazing adoringly at each other.

In that long, lonely decade after Annie died, my aunt never re-partnered, she never appeared to consider it. She wore all of Annie's gold rings, slept in her t-shirts. Her last wish - told to me in hospital the day before she died - was for their ashes to be scattered together. I always had the impression that no other relationship would compare. My aunt was as happy as she could be living with the memories of their life together.

Had they been De Factos for those 30 years? Well, legally yes – they lived together in a sexual relationship, their finances were combined, they owned property together. But it felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair. They came from an era where public displays of affection were frowned upon. I adored it when they were at home and were able to hug and kiss each other as openly as my parents did. At my wedding they danced so beautifully that everyone stopped to watch. Little wonder their first restaurant was on Sydney's Oxford Street where they could feel more free.

Most accurately, Julia had 'Never Married', so with a heavy heart I ticked that box. This meant that the next section of the death registration, asking for her partner's name and other details, was left sadly blank. As if she'd never loved or been loved.

I'm sure Julia would have married Annie if they'd lived in a future Australia. An Australia where the defining relationship of her life could have been recorded on her death certificate.

 

Follow Monique on Twitter @MoniqueFarmer