People always complain that the media doesn’t report on good news. Always so negative, is the common complaint. So you want to hear the good news? Black people don’t die any more in Syracuse and Onondaga County. At least not very often. I learned this from reading the obituary pages of The Post- Standard, our local thrice-weekly publication.
I’ve always been an avid obituary reader. Each printed tribute to a neighbor gone to his or her eternal rest reads like a time capsule, a mini-history of one corner of our community, sketched out one life at a time. I learn tons about our history by reading the stories of those who have preceded us and left behind families, careers, motorcycles, pets, gardens and memories. Even the euphemisms we use to describe the passage from life to death are a literary genre unto themselves.
But lately when I open the obituary pages, it seems that the dead are much paler than the folks I meet on the street. Could I be imagining this, or have black people discovered the secret of eternal life?
Go ahead. Open the paper. You’ll see what I mean. This is a snapshot of your community that you can’t grasp nearly as accurately if you just look at it just online, where obits appear as a list. You can’t get the same feel for the disparity online as you do when you unfold the paper itself and see all those faces.
On the printed page, it is a mural, and the picture speaks loudly. While segregation is often referred to as a fact of life, it goes beyond that: In our town, it’s also a fact of death.
Where are the obituaries and photos of the black people? Back in January I started to keep track of the numbers. Since you can’t really accurately assess someone’s race or ethnicity from his or her name alone, I just counted those whose obits included a photo, and only if the photo and accompanying information made it certain whether or not the deceased was of African descent.
On March 15, I counted 39 obituaries. Exactly two of them honored black decedents. On March 22, of the 40 deceased portrayed, four were African-American. April 14’s paper contained 21 obituaries, April 28 had 26; none appeared to be of African-American origin. On April 16, one of the 46 faithful departed were black.
Five days, 172 obituaries with photos — and seven black faces appear. And that’s just a sampling. You can pick your own days and the overall picture won’t change much.
Nearly 30 percent of Syracusans identify as African-American, and nearly 12 percent of county residents count themselves as black.
Can it be that black folks have stopped dying? According to the county, African-Americans actually die in greater proportions than whites. In its 2014 report entitled “The Onondaga County Community Health Assessment and Improvement Plan 2014-2017,” the county pointed out that death rates for African-Americans exceed those of the general population.
“In Onondaga County, 59.1 percent of black males will die before age 65, compared to 25.1 percent for white males. For every white person who dies prematurely, there are 2.53 premature deaths of a black person.”
So where are all these black deaths being noted? It seems that you’re more likely to die if you’re black, but less likely to have it noted in the paper of record.
Why is that? The Post-Standard now lets you write your own obituary, but if it exceeds two column inches, it charges you to publish it. A good-sized obituary can run you in the neighborhood of $2,000. Photos are an additional charge of $30.
An obituary is no longer a task handled by a reporter: It is uploaded by a funeral director to a sales representative. In other words, it’s not a story, it’s an ad. And a costly one at that.
So if your people are not likely to read the paper, and you don’t have an extra 2K sitting around when you die, why spend the cash and post the notice? The racial divide that haunts American life, it would seem, also haunts us beyond the grave.
Full disclosure: We are by no means trying to claim the moral high ground when it comes to diversity. It’s hard to remember back to the last time that the Syracuse New Times had even a single non-white staff member.