Thursday, June 4, 2015

GRAVE ROBBERS: How online obituary firms steal and monetize your family story, with or without your knowledge, leaving you with no rights or recourse

                                                                                                   by Matthew Frey
This is the follow-up to Dead Man's Party, which explored the funeral industry.
    There is a quiet war going on in America, with hundreds of millions of dollars per year at stake. Nobody is being killed, thank goodness. They're already dead.
    The battle is over which online company will get fabulously wealthy exploiting the anguish of those left behind, by selling them colorful, compelling interactive obituaries that portray the grand and beautiful lives that their loved ones lived. If you don't buy one for your family member, they put one online anyway. They feature it prominently in search engines, and urge "visitors" to buy tokens of sympathy in your honor.
    These are cynical, profiteering schemes -- yet another aspect of our notoriously predatory “death industry,” which takes such ghoulish advantage of people‘s grief. They underhandedly wrest ownership of our loved ones' lives and legacies, claiming rights to use their stories to make money, in any manner whatsoever, forever. How can we allow this IDENTITY THEFT to go on without a legal challenge?

    The obituary's journey from personal news story to grand robbery is complicated, but it provides a fascinating glimpse both into our attitudes about the value of individuals, and into our culture's monetization of everything.
    As we will explain later, one firm makes sure that you have an online obituary, whether you one or not. A surprising number of people choose not to have an obit, in the newspaper or online. Shouldn't that be your right? A Boston firm has commandeered the Social Security Death Index, and creates an online memorial page for everyone who dies. It then prods your family and friends to purchase products and services, or leave photos and taped memories, which bring in millions of dollars a year on top of the millions it makes from people who willingly paid for an online obituary.
    How can this not be criminal?
    It seems like only yesterday that people lived, and then they died, without much fanfare. The local paper ran a straightforward little obituary that was “destined to be clipped and tucked into the family Bible.” Then there was a simple, somber funeral, and maybe some cold cuts and potato salad afterward.
    That was that. Bye, Uncle Bob.
   Golly, how things have changed. We are much more interesting and important than we used to be -- or maybe we just have a greater appreciation for how interesting and important we always have been.
    Dying in today’s tech-drenched world is like bursting out of a cannon and blossoming into a whole new realm of vivid, all-embracing, multimedia existence, if you choose to pay for this trendy immortality. These online tributes have soaring background music. There are audio clips in which people describe their touching and humorous memories of the one who has “passed.” There are detailed life stories, resumes, timelines, slideshows containing hundreds of photos, and guest books in which  family and friends can keep the beloved person apprised of what is happening here on Earth. You can go visit any time, and it’s like the person is right there, waiting for you!
    Is cyberspace Heaven? Will our afterlife consist of sparkling in The Cloud?
    You don’t even need God anymore to go on forever. All you need is the Internet and a credit card.

    Even before the advent of web-based memorial sites, obituaries were evolving with the times. The “everybody has a story” mentality took over. It‘s a perspective that I happen to agree with. As a journalist, I have learned that even people who appear to have lived the most modest, mundane lives possess greatness in one way or another. I believe that most people are actually quite brave and admirable.
    So when this point of view began showing itself about 20 or 30 years ago in newspaper obituaries, I was all for it. People deserved more than they had been getting.
    Obituaries became more personal, emotional and colorful -- more expansive about the “specialness” of the deceased. Indeed, obituaries have become so compelling that studies indicate they are typically among the top three topics of reader interest in the average local daily newspaper. In some papers, only the weather forecast has a greater readership. We are touched by the ways in which our fellow men have used their time on this lovely planet. I think that is great.
     Readership surveys indicate that many people are primarily checking to see if anyone they know has died, but a remarkable number of others are real “obituary buffs,” who value the stories, the recounting of people’s passions and convictions, the good times and the challenges, and the embrace of family.

     These more contemporary obits can be very touching and inspiring. Every once in awhile, they come close to reaching the stature of literature. And, according to Nathaniel Blumberg, retired dean of the University of Montana journalism school, "The death of a citizen in a newspaper's circulation area is not only news, it's important news."
    Even so, newspapers -- which had always published death notices for free, as a public service -- began charging by the inch for obits, and as their other sources of revenue have been savaged by the economy and by competitors for ad sales, they have raised the rates to exorbitant levels.
     This is an understandable but unfortunate move. Our obituaries have always been right there, every day, in a newspaper that represented our own, finite communities -- our friends and neighbors, former colleagues and schoolmates. They have had a sort of binding force on our local lives. But many people are now finding a newspaper obituary to be something they can’t afford.
     And anyway, “local lives” are losing some of their relevance.
    Having just three TV networks created a similar “glue” that we have largely lost to the vast high-definition and cable world. We aren’t all coming together anymore around these older media, whether they be print or broadcast. We’re dispersed, we’re diverse, and so we are creating new ways to connect.
    Obituaries are a part of this flux. Newspapers as we’ve always known them are fading away as people turn increasingly to online sources of information. Our society is less “local,” as families become far-flung, and when people speak of “communities,” they’re usually referring to online amalgamations of like-minded people
  Appealing new online alternatives to newspaper obits are becoming available. For a large part of the newspaper’s core audience, these new forms lack the intimacy and immediacy of a local source of news that is delivered to your doorstep each morning and accompanies that cup of coffee. But, as countless analysts have pointed out, the print newspaper is destined to fade away, along with the obit page as we know it.

    No one has yet come up with a “place” that can fulfill the role of our daily paper in providing the localized obituary content that has meant so much to our communities, so we can only hope that our local papers survive, even if only in online form.
    The online obituary -- even though it‘s “out there,” rather than on your kitchen table -- does have its advantages. Because there are no space constraints in cyberspace, it can be as lengthy as you wish. There is no charging “by the inch.“ It can remain online for weeks, months, forever. It is available to anyone, anywhere on Earth, so you don‘t have to run out and buy a bunch of copies of the paper to send an obit to your friends and relatives.

    I have closely examined the web sites of the two firms that are at the forefront of the fight over our “eternal online lives,.” and I have corresponded with the president of each. If these firms were countries, we would call them imperialistic. They want to take over the world. Their fine print and extensive user agreements raise some very unsettling questions about who owns the lives that are shared so openly in the obituaries and what profitable new “products” these aggressive entrepreneurial ventures can create using your history, your family, your love, joy and grief.
    What makes these issues particularly disturbing is that the presidents of these firms adamantly refuse to answer questions about their terms of use, which give them unlimited rights to the material that you pay them to display. They make no secret of their global visions, of being all-encompassing repositories of humanity’s comings and goings. Neither firm makes an effort to inform you of its extremely confiscatory policies, and neither obtains your consent to be subject to those policies.

    The question is: Should we care?
    I do. How can one not? If they had reasonable, acceptable answers to these obvious questions, surely they would be willing to provide them.
    When such Internet firms as Craigslist and savaged newspapers’ classified advertising revenues -- which had been a vital income stream -- the price for obituaries began to soar.
      Now, online obituaries are coming alive in ways that no one dreamed was possible just a few years ago.
    They are changing the way we grieve. They are changing the ways in which people connect to each other through grief. They are keeping the dead front and center, vividly and movingly.
    Some people opt for the simpler format, similar to a newspaper obituary, except that it has a “guest book,” where condolences can be expressed by anyone, anywhere, who as access to a computer and is willing to pay the “entrance fee.” Others families are increasingly being drawn to the power and beauty of more elaborate “memorial sites” that are being marketed.
    At first glance, the creation and maintenance of these memorial sites can seem like yet another outgrowth of a narcissistic consumer culture, in which we buy too much stuff and make too much of ourselves. Why not just pick yourself up and move on, after someone dies? Why wallow in death, returning time after time to one site or another to “visit” your loved one, or leave a message for him or her, or read the sentiments that others have expressed?

    It all seemed a bit pathetic to me, at first, but I have since come to believe that it may well be a psychologically healthy trend. Maybe our traditional  “get over it” ethic has been wrong all along, and it is natural for us to continue to honor and remember our loved ones. In places such as Japan and Tibet, the living regularly visit the lovely, meaningful shrines of their loved ones. They tend to them, bring flowers and other offerings, light candles and incense, kneel and pray. The picture above depicts a modest family shrine that is maintained, as they often are in Japan, in the home. It seems to me that these ritualized gestures may have value, whether you have any religious beliefs or not. They resonate with me as a way of expressing undying love and gratitude, and of incorporating expressions of respect and remembrance into everyday life.
     This has all occurred to me as I have dealt with my own father’s death over the past year. I don’t want to forget him. I don’t want the vividness and persistence of my memories to “fade,” as many people have told me they will. I don’t want to “get over” his death, although I am hoping it will become less painful. I want him to remain a powerful force in my consciousness, and I make an effort every day to keep him there. It feels as if it would be a sort of betrayal to let him slip deeper into the vault of my “memory bank.”  
    So I respect the impulse of those who are investing in this new option -- the online memorial site -- even as I question the ambitions of those behind them.
     Below is a Tibetan child making an offering at the family shrine -- similar, perhaps, to lighting a candle at an online memorial site.

     We may discover that the lasting and interactive obituary/memorial sites that have been cooked up by savvy entrepreneurs will become a powerful part of our culture. They already seem to be providing comfort to a great many people. One woman who lost her son describes how heartwarming it remains for her to visit “his” site even several years after his death, and to view messages that his old friends continue to leave for him. These reminders that there are others “out there” actively remembering and loving her son provide extraordinary solace.
    In retrospect, it seems odd to me that we haven’t been doing a “no tech” version of this all along. We do the Memorial Day thing -- mums on Mama’s grave -- and that’s about it.

    The high-powered Internet titans that are waging their battle for this very valuable turf regard an obituary as a global product, not a local one. They are “big picture” people, who envision their firms as planetary networks that will eventually encompass every death, everywhere. They are anticipating huge profits as they become unimaginably massive vaults of individual records that document the stream of lives lived and lost.
    I find this all to be a bit creepy. I wish some philanthropist had established this as a nonprofit enterprise, so we would not have to worry about the very real possibility of desecration, brought to you by the cold-hearted, bottom-line mindset of capitalism.
    In my first blog post, back in February of this year, I described the business model of the  preeminent online obituary site,
    Founded in 1998, collaborates with more than 800 newspapers in North America, Europe and Australia to publish obituaries and to provide ways for readers to express condolences and share remembrances. A 2009 study by the Medill School encouraged Legacy to think beyond its affiliation with newspapers and not be “held back” by such an outmoded medium, but for the time being, the alliance seems healthy. -- whose slogan is "where life stories live on" -- is visited by more than 14 million people each month, making it one of the top 100 most-visited sites on the web. It is these “visits,“ more commonly known in the business world as “traffic,” that can turn a little Internet site into a mind-bogglingly valuable commodity. It is "page views” that advertisers are looking for, and Legacy has plenty of those.

    The firm partners with 124 of the 150 largest newspapers in the U.S. and features obituaries and Guest Books for more than two-thirds of people who die in the United States.
    In addition to the almost 7 million obituaries it hosts, offers access to more than 78 million records from the Social Security Death Index. Those records represent every death in the United States since 1937.
    Legacy has constructed its tie-in with newspapers so seamlessly, that it says most people who view a local obit online don’t even realize that they have been shifted over to Legacy’s site from their newspaper’s site. The Legacy site is rich with ads, some of which are relevant -- for and sympathy flowers and gifts, for example -- and some of which are not -- such as ads for weight loss, car insurance, Herbal Essence shampoo and the University of Phoenix.
MASSIVE AMBITION, BLENDED WITH DIVERSIFICATION is massively ambitious. Its 130 employees in Evanston, Illinois, also oversee other highly successful web sites -- that are jammed with national advertising -- such as, “a fun, informative site that speaks to the special connection between people and their pets.” It also partners with newspaper affiliates to offer “Celebrations,” through which readers are able to announce a variety of events, including weddings, engagements, anniversaries, births, birthdays, etc. Each Celebration can include an announcement, a profile page, a content-screened Guest Book, a gift registry and a photo gallery.
    In 2005, cunningly acquired, which offers a range of services related to public notice advertising in more than 400 U.S. newspapers. Public Notices are advertisements placed in newspapers by the government, businesses, and individuals. They include government contracts, foreclosures, unclaimed property, etc. This is one of those unglamorous sites that just sits there and rakes in the money.
   When you pay a Legacy-affiliated newspaper to publish an obituary, it will appear online as well as in the newspaper. Access to the online obit is included in the price you pay the newspaper, and it remains in effect for a prescribed time -- usually between one month and one year. After that, anyone who wishes to visit the obituary or leave a message in the guest book must pay Legacy a fee, although no one tells you that when you place the obituary.
     Legacy, in other words, essentially takes ownership of your obituary for its own profit. To me, this is shocking -- and lacks legal or ethical justification..
    I was not aware of the time restriction when I paid nearly $900 for my father’s one-day newspaper obituary last year. I assumed I would have access forever to the online obit. I wrote it. It was my intellectual property. He was MY FATHER. I paid Legacy to publish it, and now they were attempting to charge me to view it, and to charge anyone else who wanted to view it. Their business plan relies on continuing to make money off of something that legally belongs to the author -- in this case, to me.
    I spoke to others who had been appalled when they had the same experience. They had decided to “visit” their loved one online, by calling up the obituary and reading it through, and they were both hurt and outraged that they were “DENIED ACCESS” unless they paid a fee. One prominent local media figure told me, “I just sat there shaking. They were telling me that I was BLOCKED from seeing my own mother’s obituary page, unless I paid them a fee each time. And I had already paid them hundreds of dollars!”
    I raised some hell -- some RAGING hell -- and got the policy changed for the two newspapers in Salt Lake City. All paid obituaries in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News -- past, present and future -- are accessible for free, forever. So please pardon me if I say, "thank you," to myself.
    But for the millions of monthly visitors to the Legacy site who live elsewhere, the pay-per-view system is still in effect, and Legacy continues to profit handsomely from a “product” that is created by others, who are overwhelmed with grief and seeking some way to find comfort. According to, it receives nearly 800,000 new guest book entries per month -- or one every 2.5 seconds. The money pours in.
    It is as if you paid a photographer to take your picture, and he then began selling it online, with all the proceeds going to himself.
    A newer site, ObitLink, “will be fully-integrated with's extensive network of online obituaries, death listings, memorial websites and guest books, bringing a new level of connectivity to funeral homes and the communities they serve. Funeral homes using the WebLink website solution will have direct access from their local funeral home websites to's expansive database, which includes 100 million detailed newspaper obituaries, guest books and death listings, updated throughout each day.
    More grandiose ambitions.
    For those who want a more colorful, interactive obituary format, the firm offers Legacy Memorial Websites. This photo doesn't do the site justice. It really is very nicely done.

    “Combine cherished photographs, biographical content, video and audio clips, and music in a unique way to honor and remember those close to you. You may also include a Guest Book allowing visitors to express their sympathy and share thoughts and fond memories,” the promotional material says.
    You pay $50 to establish your site and $20 annually to sustain it, but -- according to Legacy’s stated policy -- “ is the sole owner of the information on this Site.”
    You create it. You maintain it. You pay for it. But it belongs to, and it is linked by Legacy to commercial sites (that of course pay Legacy a fee) and are “not bound” by Legacy’s privacy policies.
    This is just the tip of Legacy’s larcenous iceberg. It places strict limits on you, while claiming total freedom for itself.
    Although it states that “you may not modify, copy, distribute, re-publish, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, reuse, resell, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell any information, content“ from the site, it explicitly claims those very rights for itself.
     As I have detailed in earlier posts, Legacy asserts -- without informing you or gaining your consent --  that it has a "royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive right and license to use, copy, modify, display, archive, store, publish, transmit, perform, distribute, reproduce and create derivative works from all Material you provide to, Inc. in any form, media, software or technology of any kind now existing or developed in the future"
    It also asserts “the right to use your name and any other information about you that you provide in connection with the use, reproduction or distribution of such Material. You also grant, Inc. the right to use the Material and any facts, ideas, concepts, know-how or techniques ("Information") contained in any Material or communication you send to us for any purpose whatsoever, including but not limited to, developing, manufacturing, promoting and/or marketing products and services. You grant all rights described in this paragraph in consideration of your use of this Site and our services of making Material you provide us available to third parties, and without the need for compensation of any sort to you.
    It adds that “under no circumstance” will any money be refunded to you.
     If  people were told to read and agree to these provisions before placing their family’s treasured histories with, do you think that they would do it?
    These unconscionable terms are not presented to those who purchase obituaries through their local newspapers, which is how Legacy gets 90 percent of its traffic. Consumers are theoretically bound by a contract that they have neither seen nor agreed to. They relinquish all of their rights and confer all of them onto Legacy, a hidden transaction which is legally indefensible. That is the premise of our pending class-action suit, which we are revising to have a broader scope.

    In response to my questions about the vast powers being claimed, without the user’s knowledge or consent,’s president Stopher Bartol responded in a way that completely avoided the issues. It sounds like it was written by a clueless PR person: provides ways for people to reach out and connect with each other, from all corners of the globe, at a time when they are experiencing the loss of a friend or loved one... People share stories and anecdotes, send condolence messages, grieve together, and find support - all on the sites that we help host. Before the Internet, this kind of connection was not as readily available. Now, millions of people reach out and connect with each other and with those who grieve the loss of a friend or loved one.
    Is that totally ridiculous or what? Is he trying to out-Rummy Donald Rumsfeld? Maybe is depends on what the definition of “is” is. As I said in my blog post subsequent to the letter I received from Bartol, either he is stupid, or he thinks we are.
    It is not clear to what extent Legacy has taken advantage of the rights it claims to the material posted on its site, but it is unquestionably amassing a treasure trove of data, stories and other archival materials that is of great value in the marketplace..

    Legacy’s chief competitor,, was founded in 2008 by Jeffrey Taylor, a self-described “visionary,“ who created the highly successful job-search web site, a $1.3 billion company that essentially stole the help-wanted market from the nation’s newspapers.
    He then raised $32 million to launch Eons, a site for Baby Boomers that rapidly fizzled, except for its obituaries section. In February 2008, Taylor launched  a separate obits site,,, made himself chairman and installed Eons executive Elaine Haney as its president.  Taylor raised money from the publisher Dow Jones & Co. along with several chains of funeral homes to launch Tributes.
     He characterizes “ as a social-networking version of the obituary,” and “as the global online resource for obituary news.” (here we go with the grandiosity again!)
     The ever-resourceful, creative and ruthless entrepreneur launched a strategy that essentially constitutes identity theft:  His firm is using the Social Security Death Index as an "aggregator," to create  online obituary pages for everyone who dies, without informing or getting permission from their families, and then trying to turn each one into a lucrative "gathering place" for grievers, who are enticed, in several ways, to spend money (which is pure profit for on behalf of your loved one.
    How can this be legal? How is it not identity theft, and receiving money for stolen goods (your loved one's good name)?
     “The 50-plus age group is the fastest-growing segment of Internet users, so it's good time to take obits online,” he said in a podcast to funeral directors last year.

    Tributes’ angle is to persuade funeral directors to partner with it and to place their customers‘ obituaries not in the local newspaper but rather on the Tributes site, which meshes seamlessly with the funeral-home site, providing valuable advertising for the funeral home as well as Tributes.
    Tributes has also partnered with some 100 TV stations to host obits on their web sites, but, “the core mission of our business is centered around building an extensive channel of funeral-home partners that sell our online memorialization products to their (client) families and leverage our online distribution (which relies on social networking) to rapidly communicate the news of someone’s passing along with the service information – to ensure more people can indeed find the information and attend the services - while providing an interactive platform which allows extended family and friends to pay their respects and support the immediate family,” according to Tributes President Elaine Haney, (If that is clear to you, I offer my congratulations. Haney is another executive who has mastered the art of sounding reasonable and competent while skirting the issues at hand).
    The "online memorialization products" remind me of the "virtual goods" people purchase when they're playing those massive multiplayer online games.

    “Many of our funeral home partners also use our technology directly on their websites to power their obituary sections, and families are very happy with the opportunity to create and nurture a lasting online memorial without limitation – with pictures, video, music and interactivity – to truly celebrate and remember the life of their loved one in a much more meaningful way than a traditional print obit allows – especially given the continuously rising cost of print obits,” Haney says.
    By maximizing the “local and global Internet vitality” of the obituaries appearing on a funeral-home website, gives it the tools and technology to enhance customer service, build reputation and increase business, the Tributes site declares. “The business associate in Prague and the best friend down the street from your funeral home have equal accessibility to the obituary information of someone they know.” Tributes says.
    But who among us goes trolling through a lengthy list of funeral-home sites each day to see who has died? I don't get it.

    A substantial source of ongoing revenue from these accounts is what Taylor refers to as “the definitive personalized product, the Eternal Tribute,” as well as the continued sale to existing as well as new customers of online obituary and tribute products.
    Visitors to the site are encouraged to “light a candle,” for example or engage in other profitable gestures of sympathy,
     Tributes, as well as Legacy, continues to come up with ways to induce visitors to spend money, on top of the money that the visit itself generates as “traffic” for advertisers.
    Tributes recently partnered with Remembered Voices LLC, which enables family and friends to leave personalized audio messages to express their sympathy to the immediate family or recall special memories of the deceased. These messages are stored within the memory books of obituaries and Eternal Tributes that are posted to the obituary database.
    From any U.S. location, users can record an audio message, paying tribute to the memory of their lost loved one. “Such audio memories with improved voice quality and genuine emotions provide the family with the ultimate forever gift, comforting them during their time of mourning.” Tributes says.
    Taylor’s expansive view of his company’s potential must surely be alluring to funeral homes, which have continued to lose relevance with the changing times, as outlined in Monday‘s post, “Dead Man‘s Party.”

     Taylor entices funeral home directors with a modest charge for each obituary they post on his site, and then adds, “You can charge your families whatever retail price you deem appropriate as a separate line item.” He suggests a markup as high as 350 percent. The obits come with other revenue-generating features, such as the Share a Memory condolence book, Light a Candle gifting, Anniversary reminders and a variety of other features.
    He also tells prospective funeral-home affiliates that they “will be positioned and equipped to offer your clients the definitive personalized product, an Eternal Tribute. At a wholesale cost of $125.00, each Eternal Tribute you sell receives permanent online placement including unlimited text, unlimited photos in an interactive gallery, a choice of background music and themed background graphics, capability to upload DVDs and videos, links to YouTube and other relevant websites e.g. charitable organizations,
fraternal organizations, etc., as well as all the feature-rich attributes of a standard obituary.”
    Taylor assures funeral homes, “You can charge your families whatever retail price you deem appropriate.”
    The online obituary provides other revenue-enhancing benefits to funeral homes, Taylor adds:  In addition to the funeral home promotion integrated into each obituary you upload to, "you will also have the opportunity to fill five advertising blocks with your own ad units to promote flowers, sympathy gifts, pre-need planners, and other information on your website.”

    Taylor  believes that “as peoples’ connections have become less local and more global, it’s not uncommon for family members, friends and colleagues to be unsure how to find obituary or service information when a death occurs,” and that “before came along, searching for and finding obituary information on a regional, national or global level was a daunting task.”
    It is difficult to see how Tributes has addressed this problem. Taylor points to his success at improving his company’s search rankings, but people don’t generally learn “in a timely fashion” that someone has died by doing a search for that person. Do you have to do a search every day for every person you know to find out who has died? It is hard to envision how Tributes can compete in this regard with, whose partnership with local papers essential.It seems doubtful  that people are likely in the near future to search TV station web sites or funeral home sites to find out who has died., with its grandiose aspirations, is similar to in the scope and ruthlessness of its terms of use. In just one small part of its terms, it stakes claim to all rights with respect to your material and confers upon itself the right to make money from your material perpetually in any way it chooses, even if you ask to have your material removed from the site:

    “You expressly grant Tributes a worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to publicly display, use, reproduce, modify, create derivative works from, and distribute the User Content in any form, in connection with the Web site or other affiliated or related Tributes ventures. This license is sublicensable (so that Tributes is able to use its affiliates and subcontractors such as Internet content delivery networks to provide the Web site and any other Tributes services). This license will continue perpetually unless and until you remove your user content from the Web site, at which time the license granted here will automatically expire; provided however that Tributes may retain archived copies of your user content, and may continue to include, use, or display such user content in published materials (e.g. books, television products) created prior to such removal of your user content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge and agree that the license granted by you to Tributes for User Content included in obituaries or obituary notices (the “Obituary Content”) shall be irrevocable. Registered Users may request that Tributes take down Obituary Content by contacting the firm, but Tributes shall not be obligated to do so.”

    Does anyone else find these terms downright creepy and presumptuous and arrogant? In response to them, I posed these questions to Elaine Haney, the president of

How would you personally feel about Tributes' terms being applied to you? If your parent were to die, would you think it was fair for you to pay for a Tributes package, and then permit Tributes to "use, reproduce, modify, create derivative works from, and distribute your User Content in any form, in connection with the Web site or other affiliated or related Tributes ventures" for their profit?

What sort of modification and/or derivative works might Tributes create with its users' materials? Wouldn't you be uneasy about giving up your right to determine where and how your loved one is portrayed? How much money would Tributes plan to make from the death of your parent?

And if you decided to remove your parent's material from the site, would you be OK with the policy that Tributes could "retain archived copies of your user content, and may continue to include, use, or display such user content in published materials (e.g. books, television products) created prior to such removal of your user content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge and agree that the license granted by you to Tributes for User Content included in obituaries or obituary notices (the “Obituary Content”) shall be irrevocable."

Books and television products? Irrevocable? Do your users simply give away all control over how their loved one, and their family as a whole, are used and 'marketed'?
The president of declined to respond to these questions. As a journalist, I have always found the refusal to answer a question to be one of the most revealing answers one can give.

    Moreover, although the Tributes products are marketed as a one-time-only charge (I could find no mention of ongoing charges), its terms of use suggest that your credit card will be regularly billed, and that there are no refunds. Its terms state:

Billing for products and services will generally be on a monthly or annual recurring basis unless otherwise stated. Your credit card will automatically be charged on each renewal date unless cancelled prior to the respective renewal date."

    "You acknowledge that reserves the right to charge for some or all of the products and services it offers and to change its fees from time to time at its discretion. Billing will be processed immediately upon purchasing a product and/or service. If modifies, removes, discontinues or terminates your service, product or user registration you shall not be entitled to a refund. All sales are final. There are no refunds.

    Both Tributes and Legacy are focusing on the power of social networking to draw traffic to their sites, and they regard the ‘grapevine effect’ of these media as essential in today’s dispersed world. This makes a lot of sense, and in fact the Facebook generation was creating its own “eternal tributes” for their friends long before the Big Guys came along and tried to get rich off the idea.
    It may well be these very media that prove to be the undoing of Tributes and Legacy (which would be great!), as ordinary people readily create their own memorial sites  -- with much greater feeling and ingenuity -- by harnessing the social media they have been using all their lives.

    UPDATE: New York Times March 21, 2014: "The social norms for loss and the Internet are clearly still evolving. But Gen Y-ers and millennials have begun projecting their own sensibilities onto rituals and discussions surrounding death. As befits the first generation of digital natives, they are starting blogs, YouTube series and Instagram feeds about grief, loss and even the macabre, bringing the conversation about bereavement and the deceased into a very public forum, sometimes with jarring results."
     There are other companies and other strategies that have recently arisen for making money from obituaries. Several of these firms have created software that enables breathtaking “memorial products” to be created by the end user, generally a funeral home.
    There is even a move to run obituaries as paid ads on local TV newscasts in smaller markets, which has aroused considerable skepticism.
    “You talk about obits on TV and some people look at you and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Kansas-based Weather Metric’s Hank Levy admits. “And I think to myself, I’ve just heard stories about eight people who just got shot on your newscast. Then I think, maybe we’re just covering death in a more humane way than they are.”
    A small obit in a large market can cost $1,000, according to Advertising Age. But for just $100, families can buy into a two-minute segment about their loved ones on Flint, Michigan’s WNEM, which includes an obituary on the station’s website and information about the funeral home, sales manager Jeff Guilbert says.
    "We do a five-second opening, saying, 'Here are today's death notices'," Guilbert says. "It has a nice background, and it's a very respectful way to commemorate those who passed. Then four names pop up on the screen, and every eight seconds, another four names come up until the two minutes are over."
    These are interesting but not very promising experiments.
    It is clear that for the foreseeable future, it’s Legacy vs. Tributes. Each has some high-quality and beautifully rendered products.
    And each, as Jimmy Carter might put it, has lust in its heart. It is a lust that -- it seems to me -- has blinded them to such values as justice, fairness, openness and honor. Those qualities would have been nice to find in an enterprise that memorializes our loved ones.

    Read an update on's ingenious and diabolical strategy in the battle to dominate the obituary market. It is using the Social Security Death Index as an "aggregator," to create  online obituary pages for everyone who dies, without informing or getting permission from their families, and then trying to turn each "tribute" into a lucrative "gathering place" for grievers, where they are asked to pay fees to honor the deceased in various ways . 
    How can this identity theft be legal?
It aspires to provide "one centralized national web destination" for all death notices.