All of these bickering begs the question: why are obituaries so popular? The answer is simple, according to Robin Heppell, funeral marketing consultant: Obituaries attract web traffic.
Take, for example, Monique Heller, including the obituary for his father, which included how he foiled “lunch thieves with laxative chocolate cake and dung meatloaf sandwiches,” went viral in 2019. Local newspapers reported his unusually candid profile of his father , National Public Radio contacted her, and her father’s name briefly trended on Twitter. “I was like, holy cow, daddy, you know you did it,” she said.
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 documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The websites of some funeral homes in metro areas attract more than a million visitors a year, says Heppell, who also designs and maintains websites for funeral homes. In some smaller newspapers the obituary section attracts twice as much traffic as the news section, John Heald, an executive at Legacy.com, a company that partners with newspapers to publish obituaries, said on a podcast in July.
This traffic leads to cash. Leclerc claims that Echovita generated $ 5 million in revenue in 2020. The company takes commissions on sales of flowers, candles and memorial trees, he says. Since 2018, he says he has reinvested more than a million dollars from Echovita in a new company named Funeral, 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 generous pockets. Heppell, a funeral home marketing consultant and website designer, says Providence Strategic Growth, a private equity fund, approached him in 2018 to acquire his business. When the conversation turned to valuation of the company, he said representatives of the fund asked him how many obituaries had been posted on the websites he managed. “Their assessment of the business was going to be based on obituaries,” he said in conclusion. Heppell later ended conversations with Providence.
At the time, Providence owned Tribute Technology, which offers a range of technology services for funeral homes, including website design and management. At the end of 2020, Providence sold Tribute Technology to two other private equity funds, Carlyle Group and Vista Equity Partners, would bring in more than a billion dollars. Providence could not be reached for comment.
On his website, Tribute Technology says it’s “changing the world one obituary at a time.” To access these obituaries, one of its subsidiaries offers a free website at funeral homes, according to Heppell. Brian Waters, a funeral home manager in Indiana, says his family’s business received its website for free from a Tribute-owned company. In return, Waters says Tribute takes 50 percent of the commission on all flowers sold alongside his funeral home obituaries as well as a substantial portion of the money from memorial trees sold on his funeral home website. Then he collects the obituaries published in a central archives. A Tribute spokesperson declined to comment.
The rise of Tribute has put pressure on Legacy.com, a staple of the online death economy for more than two decades; the site receives 1.1 billion visits per year, according to Stopher Bartol, founder and CEO of Legacy. Since 1998, Legacy.com has contracted with newspapers to access the obituaries they publish. In 2017, a Legacy.com the vice president told Cnet that the company publishes an obituary for 75 percent of Americans who die. The same year, Legacy.com said Slate that he has partnered with 1,500 newspapers and 3,500 funeral homes. Legacy says these numbers are still “generally representative” but declines to comment on details. Recently, the company has shifted its focus to funeral homes, Heald said in the July podcast. He has also started selling memorial trees, in partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation, Bartol says.