Business

The Morbid War Over Online Obituaries

All of this chicanery raises the question: Why are obituaries highly valued? The answer is simple, according to Robin Heppell, a funeral marketing consultant: Obituaries attract web traffic.

Take, for example, Monique Heller, whose obituary for her father, which included how he thwarted “lunch thieves with laxative-laced chocolate cake and excrement meatloaf sandwiches,” went viral in 2019. Local newspapers reported on her unusually candid profile of her father, National Public Radio contacted her, and her father’s name briefly trended on Twitter. “I was like, holy cow, Dad, you know, you did it,” she says.

Obituaries like Heller’s have a magnetic pull. In 2020, SCI’s websites attracted nearly 160 million visitors, up from 130 million in 2019, according to its Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The websites of some funeral homes in metropolitan areas net more than a million visitors in a year, says Heppell, who also designs and manages websites for funeral homes. At some smaller newspapers, the obituaries section draws twice as much traffic as the news section, John Heald, an executive at Legacy.com, a company that partners with newspapers to publish death notices, said on a podcast in July.

This traffic leads to cash. Leclerc says Echovita generated $5 million in revenue in 2020. The company takes commissions on floral, candle, and memorial tree sales, he says. Since 2018, he says he has reinvested more than $1 million from Echovita into a new business named Funerago, which he envisions as an online marketplace for funeral services. “I want to use the technology to become a disruptor of the industry,” he says.

Online obituaries can attract investors with deep pockets. Heppell, the marketing consultant and funeral home website designer, says Providence Strategic Growth, a private equity fund, approached him in 2018 about acquiring his business. When the conversation turned to the business’s valuation, he says fund representatives asked him how many obituaries were posted on the websites he managed. “Their valuation of the business was going to be based on obituaries,” he says he concluded. Heppell later ended conversations with Providence.

At the time, Providence owned Tribute Technology, which offers a suite of technology services for funeral homes, including website design and management. In late 2020, Providence sold Tribute Technology to two other private equity funds, Carlyle Group and Vista Equity Partners, reportedly for more than $1 billion. Providence could not be reached for comment.

On its website, Tribute Technology says it is “changing the world one obituary at a time.” To gain access to these obituaries, one of its subsidiaries offers a free website to funeral homes, according to Heppell. Brian Waters, a funeral home director in Indiana, says his family’s business received its website for free from a company owned by Tribute. In exchange, Waters says Tribute takes 50 percent of the commission on all flowers sold alongside his funeral home’s obituaries as well as a substantial portion of money from memorial trees sold on his funeral home’s website. Then, it collects the published obituaries in a central archive. A spokesperson for Tribute declined to comment.

Tribute’s rise has pressured Legacy.com, a fixture in the online death economy for more than two decades; the site receives 1.1 billion visits a year, according to Stopher Bartol, Legacy’s founder and CEO. Since 1998, Legacy.com has contracted with newspapers to gain access to the obituaries they publish. In 2017, a Legacy.com vice president told Cnet that the company publishes an obituary for 75 percent of Americans who die. In that same year, Legacy.com told Slate that it partnered with 1,500 newspapers and 3,500 funeral homes. Legacy says those numbers are still “generally representative” but declines to comment on the specifics. Recently, the company has shifted more of its attention to funeral homes, Heald said in the July podcast. It’s also begun selling memorial trees, in a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation, Bartol says.

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