Bill Bostock, Insider, December 23, 2021
Three days after the funeral of Dominique Scott, a 29-year-old Florida rapper who died July 3, his family received his death certificate from the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics.
The family, from Osceola County, are Afro-Latino and of Puerto Rican heritage, but when they studied the paperwork they saw the funeral director’s office had labeled Scott as white.
“Which is just completely inaccurate,” Nitty Scott, Dominique’s brother, told Insider. “He would have wanted it to reflect his identity and experience in this world, as an Afro-Latino. As a Black and Puerto Rican man.”
Scott’s case is one of thousands that play out across America every year. The issue varies between racial groups, but Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans are the worst affected. By and large, the error stems from funeral directors’ offices, who are responsible for filling in death certificates.
The rate of misclassification is 3% for Hispanic people and 3% for Asian people, and a worrying 30% for the Native American and Alaska Native population, Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics, told Insider.
By those figures, an estimated 4.8 million Americans living today could be given the wrong race when they die, according to 2020 Census data.
Eleven days after Scott’s death, around 115 miles away in Ocala, Florida, a Black man named Marvin Dooley II died. Studying the death certificate weeks later, his son, Marvin Dooley III, too noticed errors. The funeral director had marked his father as white.
For families whose relatives had their racial identity erased in death, it can be a traumatic experience.
“You took part of my father’s identity and took it away from him. As an African American male, we are oftentimes portrayed in a very negative light. Given that this man worked all his life, was a US Air Force veteran, was a father and a good husband, I think his story should be told correctly,” the younger Dooley told Insider.
Misclassifications typically stem from the offices of funeral directors, who are responsible for filling in paperwork after a death. The National Center for Health Statistics, which is a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is trying to eliminate those errors.
In November, the NCHS launched a nationwide tour of funeral directors to “impress upon them the importance of getting this right,” as Anderson said.
“It is the funeral director’s office that’s responsible for providing that [racial] information,” he said. “Even with an informant, it can be tricky.”
Across the US, funeral directors typically rely on “informants” to help fill in the details of the deceased on forms that are then sent to a state’s vital-records office, Bryant Hightower, former president of the National Funeral Directors Association, told Insider.
The informant is usually a family member or a close friend, but they don’t always know how the deceased wants to be remembered, Hightower said.
Informants aren’t always used, though. Sometimes funeral directors aren’t able to find one, Hightower said.
Anderson said mistakes may stem from assuming a race based on the last name. “The problem is that many, particularly Native Americans, are multiracial and their Native American heritage can often be overlooked, especially if they have what would be considered a ‘white’ name,” he told Insider.
Furthermore, a person’s skin tone doesn’t change after they die, and is therefore not a feasible explanation for the errors, both Hightower and Amy Cunningham, a New York City-based funeral director, told Insider.