Issue:  Vol. 46 / No. 18 / 5 May 2016

B.A.R. obituaries go online


Volunteer Tom Burtch, standing in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society, looks at an issue of the Bay Area Reporter from 1989 that includes several pages of photos culled from the obituaries of the newspaper. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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The obituary for Gary Wagman that ran in the Bay Area Reporter on May 4, 1995, isn't totally accurate.

"He didn't die in my arms," said Freda Wagman, referring to the first paragraph of her son's obituary, which said that he had.

"His friends left me alone with him, I guess for the last 30 minutes of his life," she said of her son, who died of AIDS-related complications. "I sang softly to him, 'Hush, Little Baby,' to let him know I was there ... He just quietly gave up the fight, and he wasn't in my arms."

Wagman, who heard her son's obituary from the paper for the first time when the B.A.R. read it to her, doesn't know who wrote it.

But now everyone will be able to read Gary Wagman's obituary online, along with thousands of others that likely haven't been seen since they were originally published.

Starting on World AIDS Day (Tuesday, December 1), every obituary that's appeared in the B.A.R. since 1980 is expected to be available through a searchable archive at

For years, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people who had died from complications related to AIDS dominated the B.A.R. 's obituary pages.

Tom Burtch, a volunteer at San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society, has spent about three years scanning the obituaries from the paper's archives, which are stored at the society's Mission Street facility.

The site will enable users to share memories and could eventually let them upload photos – "sort of like a Facebook page for each person," said Burtch.

Burtch, who's been a member of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus for 24 years, had originally set out to find obituaries of former chorus members and put them online in time for the chorus's 30th anniversary last November.

But after he started, he said, "I realized that was a little bit selfish of me. I felt that the greater community also needed an opportunity to mourn ... an ability to remember people and keep their memories alive."


'The worst thing'

Burtch said that he saw obituaries for people that he had known, but he was able to remain "somewhat detached" during the process.

One issue of the paper really got to him, though.

On November 16, 1989, the B.A.R. published an eight-page section simply labeled "AIDS Deaths." Each page was filled with small photos of people who had died during the previous year.

That "was probably the worst thing," said Burtch of the section, which showed the smiling faces of people – mostly men – who were likely unaware of what was going to happen to them.

When describing the section during a phone interview, Burtch choked up and had to pause for several moments.

"It's funny," Burtch said as he resumed, "I didn't think that after all this time and all this work ... it could still get me like this."

A note on the last page of the section explained that not all of the 610 people featured had died from AIDS.

As of this week, Burtch, who's 60 and has been HIV-positive for about 17 years, and the Web designer were planning to use part of the eight-page section as a background on the Web site.

Faces and stories

Paul Boneberg, the historical society's executive director, said the site "provides the faces and the stories to the great tragedy that swept our community over the 1980s and 1990s [and] to this day. I think it's hard for people who didn't live through it to understand the breadth and magnitude of this mass death. ...&

A screen grab of the GLBT Historical Society's searchable database of obituaries from the Bay Area Reporter shows some of the faces of those who have died. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society

By July 1992, there were 16 obituaries in one week, a stark contrast to today.

Many obituaries from those years indicated how quickly AIDS was killing people. One referred to a person dying after being ill for six months. Several others had fought two- or three-year battles.

One former San Franciscan who remembers that period is Ralph Buchalter, 50, who now lives in South Orange, New Jersey.

Buchalter, who lived in San Francisco from 1981 to 1998, said he had been writing about life in the city during the 1980s and wanted to jog his memories about some of the people that he'd known here. In April, he sent the B.A.R. an e-mail asking if there was a searchable archive of obituaries from the 1980s and 1990s.

"In those days there were a lot of gay men who came to San Francisco to escape their families of origin, and often the B.A.R. obituary was the only public sign of where they had gone and what had happened to them," said Buchalter.

"I knew someone who died at least every third issue in those days," said Buchalter, who himself was diagnosed with HIV in 1986.


'No obits'

As the 1990s wore on, the impact of AIDS in San Francisco was still strong but had started to diminish.

On August 13, 1998, the B.A.R. ran its famous "No obits" headline, marking the first time in years that the paper had not run any obituaries. But the article was careful to point out that the headline didn't mean no one had died of AIDS that week, just that no obituaries had been submitted. Coming a couple years after the advent of protease inhibitors, it marked a turning point of sorts in the epidemic.

Dan Leifker, the Web designer who assisted Burtch with the project, moved to San Francisco in 1997.

"We have about 10,000 [people] in the database, and I only know about four or five of them," said Leifker. "That's how much HIV has changed since I moved here."

Still, working on the project was a moving experience for Leifker.

"I couldn't do it for more than a couple hours at a time, because it was just so intense," he said.

Burtch, who said that he'll probably start updating the site once a month, said that he hopes people will see the site as an important contribution and consider becoming a member of the society or making a one-time donation.

B.A.R. publisher Thomas E. Horn was pleased with the society's project.

"It's to their credit that they've done it," Horn said.

He added, "Hopefully, it will open the door to creating larger databases with other information we have in the paper."

Speaking of her son, who was 41 when he died, Freda Wagman, who lives in Bellaire, Texas, and declined to give her age, said she doesn't forgive herself for "not even holding his hand" in the end, but she said, "I didn't want to bother him ... I was trying to let him be peaceful."

Wagman has written a book about her and her son's involvement with AIDS titled Snippets from the Trenches, a mother's AIDS memoir.

After hearing her son's obituary from the B.A.R ., she said, "It's very strange" to bring back the 14-year-old memory to today, "as if it happened last week."

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