For the Living and the Dead: Funeral Diva by Pamela Sneed

Leslie-Ann Murray
| Reviews


“Who will care for the caretakers?” asked Sneed’s friend, poet Craig Harris, and throughout her book, Sneed continues to reiterate that question. We’ve all had to ask the same question during the global pandemic—for some, nobody took care of the caretakers, while for others, their community took care of them in big ways (landlords forgiving late rent payments) and small ways (community mutual aid societies were created, local restaurants donated food to the hospital staff in their area). Sneed provides a model of caring in a time of fear: In the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Gay and Lesbian Community took care of each other. They humanized their pain and suffering, while others turned their backs. Sneed remembers when activist and poet Assotto Saint took charge and took care:

to rise from his pew, saunter down the church’s long aisle like a Parisian
model walking on a runway with determination
speed and attitude, he stormed the pulpit, uninvited
slammed his hand on the bible as done when one wants to tell truth
to everyone’s shock, he screamed, “Donald Woods was a
proud Black gay man, he did not die of heart failure.
He died of AIDS. If you agree with me, stand up.”

This is the duality of caregiving in the gay community during the height of the AIDS crisis—Assotto denouncing the erasure of Donald Wood’s sexuality and pleading with the congregation to give voice to the now voiceless. This bold retribution instilled within Sneed and others in the community the importance of caring for themselves but also using their words and art to tell their own stories. In the essay/poem “Silence = Death,” she says, “I learned what it was like to make work with urgency as Audre said / as though your life depended upon it / to know you couldn’t waste a moment or a second.”
In her final chapter, “Why I Cling to Flowers,” Sneed lays an emotional wreath to her dead friends and the various traumas she's experienced in her lifetime. She writes, in a larger poem:

I love the daffodils red orange yellow faces
and one daffodil that I pass each day pushes its neck through
an opening in a metal garden gate
I identify with how it breaks apart
stands separate
As if refusing confines of a cell

The flowers also represent a transition—from grief to joy and from trauma to healing, against the odds. The flowers, their colors, the bliss they spark, mark the light at the end of the tunnel. The final line in the poem says it all: “If we can survive... We can heal.”

Leslie-Ann Murray is a writer, a Trinidadian, a New Yorker, and your tour guide to literary diversity. She is the founder of Brown Girl Book Lover, a newsletter and social media platform that reviews and interviews diverse writers.

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