“The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do so for them”
– Lois McMaster Bujold
Every second Tuesday of the month, some community members gather at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto in order to remember those homeless people who have passed away. One of the hardest parts of attending the Toronto Homeless Memorial, is hearing the list of names that are read during the ceremony. If that wasn’t difficult enough, many of the deceased could not be identified and therefore are read as “Jane Doe” or “John Doe.”
We pride ourselves on our “first world” status, on how “developed” we are compared to other countries. The truth is, we are far from developed. People…and I will repeat this again…people who have died homeless should not have been in that position in the first place. But even further, we cannot even keep track of our citizen’s names? Who were they? And at the very least, what were their names? Where is the dignity?
Kumar and colleagues suggest that we are born with an identity and we deserve to die with one, as it is a fundamental right of being born a human (2014:80). Michael Stoops informs us that “[w]hen a homeless person dies they do no often get the same sense of dying with dignity as a housed person” (2007:6). What most of us might take for granted here is that for many, burials and funerals are commonplace. Gravestones are often marked with the names of the dead. Unknown soldiers are also another group that do not get named in death, however, they are much more exalted in our society.
In a recent paper I wrote, I unpack some of the answers surrounding Judith Butler’s question of “what makes for a grievable life?” (2003:10). In neoliberal times, those people engaged in economic gains and productivity tend to be considered more valuable than those people who “do nothing.” We think to ourselves that money makers are more valuable than John Doe’s who die on the streets because they never contributed to society in a productive economic way. Thomas Laquer would agree, “[w]e have a history of commemorating the dead through monuments, which include war veterans, public workers and political figures. Some of these sites only include those who have “done something for humanity” (2015:423). However, if you learn about people who are homeless and hear their stories, then you will learn some of them were “productive” members of society (which is actually beside the point, but needed to be mentioned).
A human life is a human life, and because we have labelled and stigmatized homeless people, we just don’t care enough as a society to learn their names. Tipple and Speak suggest, that “[t]he negative and exclusionary language used to describe and discuss homeless people helps to construct homeless people as ‘other’ and institutionalize their stigmatisation keeping them dissociated and disconnected from society” (Tipple & Speak 2004:2). Society in general seems to be ok with this, to see homeless people as parasitic and therefore who cares about when they die or what their names were, right?
Despite this, some of us are working to change that.
Laquer has also pointed out that “[n]aming marks the entry not into biological but into human life” (2015:367). In Ontario, when we are born, we are required to submit our children’s names to the province that in turn, provides a birth certificate. This is an important societal ritual, not only because it is an official government act, but on a personal level, we can understand its importance. Psychologists have done research on the importance of names. The field has also labelled a phenomenon called “The Cocktail Party Effect” which is being able to recognize our name being said in a noisy room and a good overview of the literature can be found here. Nisbett and Ross (1980) inform us that we pay more attention to identifiable victims than statistical ones.
It is clear. Names are important to us all. We should not live in a society where we cannot keep track of our dead. If this is something important to you as well, contact your local MP and MPP and support affordable housing and social supports as a priority in order to prevent this tragedy from happening in the first place.
Bujold, L. (2002). Diplomatic immunity. Riverdale, NY New York: Baen Books.
Butler, J., (2003). Violence, Mourning, Politics. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. 4(1): 9-37.
Colman, A. M., Hargreaves, D. J., & Sluckin, W. (1980). Psychological factors affecting preferences for first names. Names, 28(2), 113-129.
Kumar, A., Harish, D., Singh, A., & Kumar, G. A. (2014). Unknown Dead Bodies: Problems and Solutions. Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine, 36(1), 76-80.
Laqueur, T. (2015). The work of the dead : a cultural history of mortal remains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Nisbett, R., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of human judgment. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Stoops, M. (2007). Dying without dignity: homeless deaths in Los Angeles County, 2000-2007. Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness.
Tipple, G., & Speak, S. (2004). Attitudes to and interventions in Homelessness: Insights from an International Study. In paper delivered to International Conference Adequate and Affordable Housing for All, June (pp. 24-27).