Jane White Thompson died in August. A blood clot traveled from her leg into her lungs, and in a flash, she was gone. “It was very quick and very unexpected,” says her husband, Joel Thompson, who is 62 years old and lives in Houston.
Soon after, Thompson and his stepdaughter wrote an obituary. It described how Jane, an avid baker, was known as “The Cheesecake Lady” and how she had two dogs, Tug and Cash. Less than three days later, a company called Echovita published on its website a summary of what they had written. It said Tug and Cash were Jane’s “close friends,” failing to note that they were dogs. Her granddaughter became a grandson. And her children weren’t mentioned as survivors. “It looks like a fourth grader did it,” Joel Thompson says. “She would be very embarrassed if people were reading that, thinking that’s her obituary.”
Jane's death had become fodder in a morbid, online war. Over the past 20 years, obituaries have turned into prized commodities, valuable enough to power much of a billion-dollar business and attract what some funeral directors call “obituary pirates,” who prey on the online information of the dead. The competition has intensified during the pandemic, which has killed more than 800,000 Americans.
In July, Service Corporation International, a New York Stock Exchange–traded conglomerate that owns 1,500 funeral homes, sued Echovita. It alleged that the Quebec-based company scraped details from obituaries, including Jane Thompson’s, from SCI’s website and republished them. “Mining people’s personal data—at the lowest point in their lives—is disappointing,” a spokesperson for the funeral conglomerate says in an email.
Pascal “Paco” Leclerc, who says he owns Echovita, claims that his company’s mission is virtuous. He’s informing the public of recent deaths, and families, he says, can publish obituaries on his website for free. “In reality, the funeral homes should never be the owner of an obituary,” he says in an interview. “The obituary’s purpose is to share the information with the public.”
Leclerc has come under fire for alleged obituary piracy in the past. In 2019, a judge in Canada ordered Afterlife, where Leclerc was a director, to pay $20 million in damages in a class-action suit for violating copyright by republishing obituaries in full. Leclerc says he was “a silent investor” in Afterlife, which was run by a partner he declines to name.
A month after the Canadian lawsuit was filed in January 2018, Leclerc says he started Echovita to rehabilitate his reputation. “I'm going to prove with a new business model that I’m trying to help society,” he says. The company crawls the web looking for new obituaries, then publishes a summary. Because Echovita isn’t copying obituaries directly, it skirts the copyright issue that damaged Afterlife, says Scott Gilligan, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association, in an interview.
Funeral directors are not appeased. “The site is guilty of flimflamming the unsuspecting public into believing that the family of the decedent is somehow connected with the website,” Gilligan wrote in an industry trade publication.
Echovita is not the only company employing such tactics. Barbara Kemmis, executive director for the Cremation Association of North America, says reports of obituary piracy are on the rise. Some families in Detroit have complained about a website that republished death notices under different names to raise money for someone else’s funeral, says Phil Douma, executive director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association. In February, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario warned of websites that purportedly sell flowers and other services alongside copied obituaries. Instead of sending families the gifts, these websites allegedly pocket the money. “It’s not going to go away, because it’s so darn easy to do,” says David Brazeau, a spokesperson for the Bereavement Authority, a government agency.
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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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“All the obituaries that appear on Legacy are there at the request of newspapers, funeral homes, and families,” Bartol says in an email. “In some cases, we will report the news that a funeral home has announced a death for which Legacy does not have an obituary. In doing so, we let the user know where they can find that funeral home’s obituaries section online."
Thompson, the widower, doesn’t know much about the companies fighting over obituaries. But he recently took Jane’s obituary off of Echovita. “I'm mad that their algorithm, or whatever program they use, printed such a piece of crap,” he says. “And I'm mad that people that we love and respect read it.”
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