All this deception raises the question: Why are obituaries so valuable? The answer is simple, according to Robin Hebel, a funeral marketing consultant: obituaries attract web traffic.
Take, for example, Monique Heller, our obituary for her father, which included how he frustrated “lunch thieves with flaky chocolate cake and meatloaf sandwiches,” in 2019. Local newspapers published an unusually candid account of her father, contacted by National Public Radio, Her father’s name was briefly rumored on Twitter. “I was like, Holy cow, Dad, you know, I did it,” she says.
Obituaries like Heller have magnetic pull. In 2020, SCI’s sites attracted nearly 160 million visitors, up from 130 million in 2019, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Hebel, who also designs and operates funeral home websites, says some funeral home sites in urban areas attract more than a million visitors a year. In some smaller newspapers, the obituary section attracts twice as much traffic as the news section, John Heald, CEO of Legacy.com, a company that partners with newspapers to publish death notices, said in a July podcast.
This passage leads to criticism. Leclerc says Echovita generated $5 million in revenue in 2020. The company charges commissions on sales of flowers, candles, and commemorative trees, he says. Since 2018, he says he’s reinvested more than $1 million from Echovita in a new company called Funerago, which he envisions as an online marketplace for funeral services. “I want to use technology to become an industry disruptor,” he says.
Online obituaries can attract investors with deep pockets. Hebel, a marketing consultant and designer of funeral sites, says Providence Strategic Growth, a private equity fund, contacted him in 2018 about the acquisition of his company. When the conversation turned to the company’s assessment, he said that fund representatives asked him about the number of deaths posted on the websites he manages. “Their assessment of the company was based on an obituary,” he concluded. Hebel later ended talks with Providence.
At the time, Providence was owned by Tribute Technology, which provides a range of technical services for funeral homes, including website design and management. In late 2020, Providence sold Tribute Technology to two other private equity funds, the Carlyle Group and Vista Equity Partners, for more than $1 billion. Providence cannot be reached for comment.
Tribute Technology says on its website that it “changes the world one obituary at a time.” To access these obituaries, one of its affiliates offers a free website for funeral homes, according to Heppell. Brian Waters, a funeral home manager in Indiana, says his family’s company received its website for free from a company owned by Tribute. In turn, Waters says Tribute takes 50 percent of the commission on all flowers sold along with the funeral home obituary as well as a significant portion of the money from memorial trees sold on the funeral home website. The published obituaries are then collected in a central archive. A Tribute spokesperson declined to comment.
The rise of Tribute put pressure on Legacy.com, a staple in the online death economy for more than two decades; The site receives 1.1 billion visits annually, according to Stoper Bartoll, Legacy’s founder and CEO. Since 1998, Legacy.com has contracted with newspapers to access the obituaries they publish. In 2017, the vice president of Legacy.com told Cnet that the company is publishing an obituary for 75 percent of Americans who die. That same year, Legacy.com told Slate that it had partnered with 1,500 newspapers and 3,500 funeral homes. Legacy says those numbers are still “generally representative” but declines to comment on details. Recently, the company has turned its attention more to funeral homes, Heald said in his July podcast. It’s also started selling commemorative trees, Bartoll says, in partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation.