Where they’re from: the meaning of Seattle death notices


For several reasons, I was struck by the death notices section in The Seattle Times on Sunday. One reason was its size: four full pages. I counted 94 notices–nearly double the 55 in the much-larger Sunday New York Times. Judging from the listed dates of death, this may represent a several-week accumulation of passings over the holiday period.  Still, since death notices are paid classified advertising ($120.84 per column inch of type on Sundays), this is welcome revenue for the paper, which dearly needs it.

Besides the earnest efforts to recount the lives of loved ones, another reason was the use of photos. Again by my count, 54 of the 94 death notices–nearly three-fifths–carried a photo of the deceased, most of them in color. One notice actually had two photos. I find such an extensive use of images endearing, but in my experience unusual. For instance, in Albuquerque, a city similar in size to Seattle where I lived for 12 years, only 18 of the 70 death notices in the Albuquerque Journal‘s Sunday edition this week carried a photo.

The third reason the section grabbed me was what it said about the origins of the Seattle population. Seattle has been a big city for a long time. In this the 50th anniversary year of the Seattle World Fair, you’re going to hear a lot about how the big 1962 event put the city on the map. But the truth is that Seattle’s population at the 1960 census, 557,000, was only 50,000 less than now.

Even with the normal churning and turning of the population, that should mean an overwhelming number of the people here now were born here. Yet of the 64 notices listing a birthplace, only 19 specified Seattle, and another nine somewhere else in Washington State. Some 36 of the deceased–way more than half–were born in another state or country and later found their way to Seattle. Besides Canada and the U.K., I counted 22 states, including my native New Jersey.

This kind of moving around, of course, is the story of later-day America. But the stats say something else to me. Presumed elements of local culture–including “Seattle nice”polite but dangerous drivers, fretting about weather and problems with the Police Department–were not inherited, but learned. These and other characteristics, it appears, are inculcated once the shores of Puget Sound are reached.

I’m no expert in demographics. But since I moved here last summer, I have been surprised by how few native Seattlites I run into, maybe one out of every 10 adults I strike up a conversation with. (During the seven years I lived in a Los Angeles suburb before moving to Seattle, no more than 25% of the local residents I got to know were born outside Southern California.) I guess it’s possible there’s a generational gap: Younger adults (at least younger than my own age, which is 60)  who tended to have arrived from somewhere else versus older folks–the group more likely to populate the death-notices section–born and raised here.

But it may also mean that over the decades many natives have grown up and moved somewhere else. This might go against the local P.R. narrative of Seattle as the perfect place to grow up and live, if not die.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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2 Responses to Where they’re from: the meaning of Seattle death notices

  1. NewToSeattle says:

    Yes, the population data I cited was not for the Seattle metropolitan area, which has added a lot of people, but just for the city of Seattle, to which I moved last summer. That’s why this blog is called New To Seattle and not New To The Seattle Metropolitan Area, or New To The Seattle Suburbs, or New to Microsoftland.

  2. kfhoz says:

    In your population data, that sounds like it is comparing 1960 to now within the city boundaries. I grew up here and can speak for Kirkland and Redmond, both part of the Greater Seattle Area, as much more populated. Where the feed and tack stores that I shopped as a teenager were, are now condos.

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