- Thousands of Americans are given the wrong race on their death certificates each year.
- An average 30% Native American, 3% Asian, and 3% Hispanic deaths are mislabeled.
- Three affected families told Insider race plays a crucial role in life, and matters in death too.
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.
“It is a kick in the teeth.”
Why this keeps happening
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.
“We need to make sure that the funeral directors understand that they need to use an informant. If they’re discussing with the families, there shouldn’t be this issue,” Anderson 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.
Dooley said he thought the error on his father’s certificate happened because the family wasn’t asked to confirm his father’s race. Scott said she didn’t know why her brother’s race was mistaken.
‘He was a Black man, who knew he was a Black man’
Instances of racial misclassification are also common outside the US mainland.
Earlier this year, Pedro Pizzini Martínez passed away from complications brought on by polycystic kidney disease in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. He was 82.
In the aftermath, his family went about tying up loose ends. Like Scott and Dooley, they learned that Pizzini Martínez had been categorized on his death certificate as white by a local funeral directors’ office.
“He was a Black man, who knew he was a Black man, experienced anti-Blackness all his life in very different contexts and geographic places,” Beth Colón-Pizzini, his granddaughter and an assistant professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s African and African Diaspora Studies department, told Insider.
“To then undo that, and his whole lineage, the anti-Blackness that his father and his grandmother experienced. All of things are erased.”
“It is atrocious to me,” she said, adding that she thought the mistake happened because people often “approximate whiteness” in Puerto Rico.
Changing death certificates is possible, but can be painstaking
Errors on death certificates are solvable, but the process is often tedious and the onus lies on the family, not the state or funeral directors’ office.
“Amending death certificates isn’t easy, it isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s a permanent legal record. You don’t want to make it too easy to modify something like that,” Anderson, from the NCHS, told Insider.
Those Insider spoke to for this story had mixed experiences of changing the records, with some saying it was too distressing to do while grieving.
Marvin Dooley III said his stepmother reached out to the Florida Department of Health to ask how to correct the error, and was told to file a request through the state’s court system.
“I’m sure quite a lot of people find that quite distasteful, probably just don’t bother,” he told Insider.
Scott described a similar experience. “It’s been very difficult to obtain any information and because of that, it’s really discouraged us to try and make any changes to the certificate,” she said.
“It’s already so emotionally taxing to just confront these things, and just to process the information.”
“I can only imagine how many documents are left alone because people just don’t have the capacity to go through that process,” she said.
Pizzini Martínez’s death certificate was recently amended by the funeral director’s office to identify him as Black, his family told Insider. “I’m relieved that I won’t have to deal with prolonging this painful situation,” Colón-Pizzini said.
Anderson, the mortality-statistics chief, said the rate of misclassification was slowly going down for Hispanic and Asian communities, but not for Native Americans.
“That will be one of our special emphases on this funeral-director project. We’ll be working with American Indian groups and with our colleagues at the State, Local, and Tribal Governments.”
“We want to get it right where we can get it right.”