I start every day with a cup of coffee and the print edition of the Chicago Tribune. Friends come to our house and see the newspaper on the kitchen table and jokingly ask “What’s that?!?! I haven’t seen one of those in years!”
Call me a dinosaur. Call me a relic of the past. That’s OK. I like my cup of coffee and my newspaper in the morning. I like perusing through the local and national news of the day. Sometimes I do the crossword. Sometimes I read the comics.
Today, over coffee at my kitchen table, I saw no fewer than three articles in the front section of the newspaper about violence in Chicago. This same day, there were 36 shootings reported for the weekend in the city, with 9 of them fatal. Many of these shootings are crime and gang related, and they usually take place on the south and west sides of Chicago. Many of the victims are people of color.
Sometimes names are printed in the articles, but usually not. Sometimes we hear the stories of the shootings, but most time the story stops at “…during a party at…,” or “while sitting in his car at a red light,” or “…while walking down the street…” It’s usually the numbers that resonate with the readers of the Chicago Tribune. We are shocked. We are worried. We wonder what horrors the next weekend will bring.
And then I flip to the obituaries, and I see this.
I see the stories of people. Good people. People who lived important, fascinating lives. People who died too young, and people who died peacefully in bed at an old age, surrounded by loving family. By reading their obituaries, I learn a little something about their lives, and the impact they had on their family world around them. I’ve always been fascinated by obituaries.
What I don’t see on this page are any people of color. I don’t see an obituary for Shawn Young. He was 47 years old and shot in a house in the West Pullman neighborhood. There was no obituary for the unnamed 33 year old man, shot in the chest while filling his car with gas. There was no obituary for the unnamed 31 year old man who was shot in the face and chest while walking in the Little Village neighborhood.
The list goes on. Chicago has seen over 2,000 shootings just in the first 6 months of 2021. That is quite a number. That is a big number. Unfortunately for many, that is all these deaths will ever be. A number. Unless it is the accidental shooting of a young child, or someone who strayed into the wrong neighborhood, chances are that all these deaths will only ever be a statistic with no living, meaningful connection to people, to their stories, or to their legacy.
Obituaries have been around for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, before the common era, obituaries served as the very basis of the news that people read every day. With the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1439, news could now get out to the masses and obituaries served as a means by which the public record was shared and memorialized.
In time, obituaries were reserved exclusively for important people who had made a significant impact on their community and world. Their death was news, and everyone needed to know. Other obituaries were listed as well, but if the person who died was not famous, their obituary would be printed for a fee. The type would be small, and would likely be towards the back of the newspaper.
This obituary practice continues to this day. If a famous entertainer or politician dies, we can expect to see an article about them in the main news section of the newspaper. If a person was well known, or their work and life made a significant impact, they may not be on the front page, but news of their passing would appear in the obituary section, just maybe a little larger and more prominent than the rest of the notices.
And everybody else has to pay. For a fee, the local newspaper will print a very basic obituary that includes the person’s name, the names of their immediate family, maybe a word or two about their work, where the funeral will be and where donations can be made in the person’s memory. For extra money, more can be added to the life story, like a photo, or maybe a religious symbol like a cross or a Jewish star. Little clues that tell the reader a little more about the person who died. Just a little more background, just a little more information.
Sadly, the cost to publish an obituary can be prohibitive for many people. Or, the cost can just be off-putting. When my family learned that the obituary for my father would cost $400, we decided instead to rely on social media and word of mouth. We could all easily imagine Dad’s reaction to hearing the cost for the obituary. Though he could have easily afforded the $400, we knew his reaction to that price tag would not been positive. Not positive at all.
We had a choice to spend money on an obituary. In many cases, our neighbors on the west and south side of Chicago have no choice at all. That same $400 instead might need to be used to pay for rent, or food, or other basic needs. And yet they continue to die. Over 300 shootings every month, over 60 deaths every month from those shootings. That obituary section should be pages and pages long.
This is not a social studies lesson. This is not an exercise in guilt or blame. This is a challenge. A challenge to the Chicago Tribune, and to every television, digital and print news outlet as well.
Publish their names. Publish them for free.
Publish their names, ages and stories. Publish the names of the people who loved them, and the contributions they made during their lives, their lives which have been cut too short. People are upset that more is not being done to combat violence in Chicago. Maybe we are not doing more, because we do not have enough information. We see the numbers, but we don’t see the names.
I can imagine a news editor responding to this idea.
…We don’t have people to do that much reporting…
…If we give some people their obituaries for free, how can we ask other people to pay?…
…our legal department has lots of concerns…
…we need to first get permission from their families…
As an increasingly frustrated astronaut Scott Glenn said in the movie The Right Stuff while waiting and waiting to be cleared for launch to be the first American in space, “why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle!“
Fix your problem.
Publish their names so we know their names. Let us learn about them, and maybe along the way we can learn about their connections to each other. Maybe we can become aware of our neighbors in a way that will provide a level of understanding of the gun violence in Chicago. A way that detached numbers and statics will never be provide.
Publish their names so we can become connected to the ongoing problems of gun violence in a way that numbers alone will never allow. Remind us every day of their humanity, remind us of the void they leave behind, remind us every day of our responsibility to find a solution the problem of gun violence in the city of Chicago. They are our neighbors. This is our community. This is our problem.
Publish their names. Give them obituaries. Do it for free.