Monday, December 13, 2010

Online Obituary Site is Doing it to Death

He calls it capitalism. I call it identity theft.
      If one of your loved ones were to die, would you mind if an aggressive, profit-making corporation created an online obituary page for that person -- without your knowledge or consent -- which was designed to increase traffic to its site? Would it bother you that relatives and friends, who encountered  the listing in search results, would be asked to upgrade the page (for a fee, and after providing their email addresses) with memories, photos and condolences, by making an audio tribute, or by lighting a virtual candle?  Would it offend you if this site asked them, for its own financial gain, to send you food and flowers, mementos or e-cards, or to make a donation or plant a tree in your loved one's name? Does this feel a bit like grave-robbing to anyone besides me?, which "harvests" death notices from the Social Security Death Index, claims to have a listing for everyone who has died since 1936.
    Its founder, who has turned his attention to launching a DJ talent agency, expects profits to "explode."
It's a creepy industry, exploiting the grief of the family and the sympathy of friends.
           Last year, I wrote about the battle for the online obituary market between the top two contenders, and 
     It is a competition in which the grief and love of those left behind are callously manipulated to create "traffic,"  "market share" and "revenue streams," and your loved one becomes a "valuable commodity."
    Both firms sell both simple and highly elaborate online obituaries that involve ongoing costs to the families. partners with newspapers; collaborates with funeral homes. 

    But has devised an ingenious strategy in the battle to dominate the obituary market. It is now 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. It aspires to provide "one centralized national web destination" for all death notices.
    In the past several months, I have discovered one obituary after another on the Tributes site (including pages for my father and my boyfriend's mother) that were posted without our knowledge or consent. They consist only of the brief information provided by the Social Security Death Index.  
    "Do you know something about this person's life?" a visitor to these bare-bones Tributes site is asked. "You can enhance his memory by upgrading his public record with words and images, signing his memory book, recording an audio memory or lighting a candle." will make more money, of course, if anyone chooses to express sympathy by choosing any of these options. Visitors are also asked to link the site to their Facebook pages.
     My online searches for a number of old friends and colleagues have turned up Tributes obits, either for them or for their parents, and not one of them was created with the consent of the families. Every one was merely a revenue-making "place holder," designed by and for the company to generate traffic, to inspire some sort of "generous gesture" by visitors to the page, and to help become “the global online resource for obituary news.”   

    Even those people who had explicitly decided not to have obituaries published about them -- which is my intent as well -- were scooped up by's indiscriminate net, and now their deaths are memorialized and publicized against their wills. 
    This includes two Sylvia Kronstadts -- what are the odds? -- neither of whom chose to have an obituary but both of whom do have pages dedicated to them, thanks to and its insatiable need to get "page views." (Here's one of them -- be sure to light a candle for her, or plant a tree in Israel in her name, OK?:
    I find this to be outrageously ruthless. How dare they attempt to build a "revenue stream" for themselves by confiscating our loved ones' identities and vital information? They are using my father (and probably yours) as bait. He is a prop -- the stiff in the corner -- who has been turned into an "attraction."
   How dare they rake in the profits, using the memories of those who were dear to us? How dare they try to seduce our friends into demonstrating their regard by linking to Tributes affiliates, which share the profits for all those food, flowers, trinkets and everything else on the "sympathy smorgasbord"?
Your friends will be urged to buy you a trinket.
    The search-engine optimization effort by has been so successful that it is already claiming to get well over 2 million hits a month, a number that is growing by 10 percent to 25 percent a month, according to the firm's president, Elaine Haney. 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.  
Internet "visionary" Jeffrey Taylor.
    He then raised $32 million to launch Eons, a site for Baby Boomers (with an online dating component called
that rapidly fizzled, except for its obituaries section. was created as a separate site in order to steal the obituary market away from newspapers, Taylor brags, the same way deprived dailies of help-wanted ad revenue. 
    "I've made a career out of migrating the whole newspaper to the web, and the obituary section is the laggard category," he told last year.

    Taylor made himself chairman of and installed Eons executive Elaine Haney as its president. An "esteemed advisory board of funeral luminaries" was created.
    Taylor raised $5.4 million from the publisher Dow Jones & Co., along with several chains of funeral homes, to launch Tributes. He tells the Boston Business Journal that he expects to make so much money that he will be able to repay investors the $32 million lost by the Eons venture.
     He characterizes “as a social-networking version of the obituary,” where "friends can gather and memories will live on."
    "We need to learn from MySpace," says John Heald, vice president for sales at "When someone dies, there are thousands of condolences. It's a whole new, important, effective way of grieving."
    The firm claims "a worldwide, royalty-free license to distribute the content in any form, in connection with the Web site or other affiliated or related Tributes ventures." The lives of our loved ones are the "raw material" for this tacky and outright larcenous industry.

    Tributes’ original plan was 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, "building an extensive channel of funeral-home partners that sell our online memorialization products to their (client) families" and "leverage our online distribution."
    Don't you love it when your Daddy's memory is "leveraged" by a multimillion-dollar corporation? claims to have created a "robust platform" that is "best in class." It aims to create "substantial new profit" through agreements with the "gift partners" that appear on each page. It intends to increase page views by "increasing long-term engagement and family involvement." It assures its funeral-home affiliates that its "easy-to-use tools facilitate email marketing and AfterCare support."
    In other words, each obituary is seen as a "product" that can continue to generate profits "for years, if not generations."
    "Newspapers have been getting all the profits," Tributes tells prospective funeral-home partners. "Now it's your turn!"  
Tributes is trying to lure worried funeral homes into its business platform.
     "The extent to which you meet your clients' needs and run a successful business is no longer confined within the walls of your air conditioned's as limitless as the global reach of the Internet!" a "white paper" declares. 
    If the funeral-home plan were showing promise, it seems unlikely that would be plundering the Death Index for cadavers to prop up its Internet presence.

    My other objection to online obituary firms' incredibly presumptuous business plans, which I outlined in detail last year, is that they claim the right, to  "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."
    Users are not informed about these scandalous provisions, which give the firms breathtaking rights to profit from your loved one's "life story."
     The firms also assert “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  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. "
Tributes is even trying to put paid obits on the nightly local news.
     I regard this as callous, deceptive and probably illegal. The "user agreement" is never presented to you. Neither firm makes an effort to inform you of its extremely confiscatory policies, and neither obtains your consent to be subject to those policies.

   If and were countries, we would call them imperialistic. They both openly declare their goals to achieve "global dominance." 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 “spinoffs” and "derivative works" and "multiplatform presentations" 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. 
They want the whole wide world (and everybody in it) in their hands.
    Founded in 1998, -- 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.

    They are anticipating huge profits as they become unimaginably massive vaults of individual records that document the stream of lives lived and lost.  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. 
Good for our Facebook generation. They're creating their own memorial sites.
     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. These pages get many thousands of hits and have the added emotional impact of having been created and maintained by those who loved the deceased friend.

    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.
    If the kids win, maybe Tributes' founder, Jeff Taylor, can dedicate all of his time to "my true life's passion, which is music." Through his DJ talent agency, Buffalo DJ, he plans to manage other DJs (he's been doing this for fun for years), record them in his state-of-the-art studio and produce his own music festivals. 
Jeff Taylor, in his deejay mode.
     As for the name (and the parent company, called Buffalo Entertainment), Taylor told the Boston Globe last summer, "A herd of buffalo move in these graceful patterns, but with lots of noise and commotion. At a festival, you get that same feeling of being part of the herd, and watching it move."
Taylor's beautiful offices have buffalo heads all over the place.

Well, not ALL over the place, but lots. Sorry, dear buffaloes.
   Who knows -- maybe the obituaries for this little venture will be appearing before long. Taylor could then spend all of his time executing animals and turning them into his new "trophies."