This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Dec. 6, Future Tense will hold a happy hour event in Washington, D.C., about planning your digital afterlife. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Like the rest of us, Lois Heppell and many other older adults use technology to keep up with their friends. But news of hookups and job promotions is not what they’re expecting. “The first thing my mother does every morning is get up, turn on her computer, and go to the bathroom,” says Heppell’s son, Robin Heppell, a funeral marketing consultant. “By the time she comes back, her screen is all booted up and she reads the obituaries to see if anyone in her hometown has died.”
The $14.2 billion U.S. death care industry is divided into three sectors: ceremony, interment, and memorialization, which includes things like grave markers, memorial jewelry and art, and obituaries. In the past few years, entrepreneurs have launched dozens of memorial apps, services, and websites designed to appeal to the nation’s 50 million cash-flush Baby Boomers. Heck, these days you can even send the grieving family a frozen lasagna. But creating a good memorial website or app is harder than it might seem: It requires a granular knowledge of customer behavior, multiple revenue streams, heavy site traffic, and superb timing. And only one platform has a lock on it.
Legacy.com dominates the online memorialization space. In an April interview with CNET, a company VP said Legacy publishes an obituary for three of every four Americans who die. The Chicagoland powerhouse was acquired earlier this year by Pamplona Capital Management. More than 3,500 funeral homes worldwide and 1,500 newspaper “affiliates” in the United States funnel customers’ or subscribers’ obits to Legacy to be posted online, the company says. It claims to attract as many as 40 million unique visitors per month, house more than 20 million obituaries, and have a double-digit growth rate. Legacy is upfront about being a “cross-platform e-commerce engine.” Revenue from floral transactions on its dedicated portal now rivals its ad revenue. CEO Steve Parrott, in an interview with Ad Age last year, was coy about the company’s annual revenue, ballparking it at somewhere between $20 million and $100 million.
Legacy says it’s poised to take advantage of “behavioral and demographic shifts across the globe.” That includes the increased connectivity of older Americans. In May, the Pew Research Center reported that in U.S. households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more, 81 percent of adults age 65 or older use a smartphone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that boomers actually spend more than millennials do on cell service. For now, the typical baby boomer who visits Legacy’s site is as white as a casket pillow. Latanya Sweeney, the Federal Trade Commission’s chief technologist, calls Legacy.com “the most highly exclusive domain for whites.” Data from Amazon’s Alexa (the online metrics site, not the A.I. that powers the Echo) shows that most site visitors are women.
Plenty of startups have tried to dip into baby boomers’ coin purses by offering virtual memorials, which usually consist of a fill-in-the-blank obituary souped up with canned music, a photo gallery, video uploads, stories or timelines, and a choice of schlocky design templates in shades borrowed from scrubs and onesies. But customers want mobile-integrated memorials that offer death notification options, funeral RSVPs, postmortem messaging, genealogy features, collaborative content tools, encrypted document storage for wills and such, seamless social media sharing, geofencing, and even bots that simulate conversation with the dead. To keep up, Legacy has invested in innovative apps such as ObitWriter, a natural language–enabled A.I. custom obituary platform.
Leaving Snapchat or Instagram to visit a standalone memorial website just isn’t an extra step most mobile users are willing to take. As interest in a person’s death wanes, obituary traffic fragments and shifts to the social media sites and messaging apps people use in their everyday lives. “Around the anniversary of a death or on the person’s birthday, people will get on Twitter to say they’re thinking about him, or they’ll post some photos on Facebook or visit a memorial Pinterest board,” says Heppell. “If someone created a separate memorial site, extended family and friends forget all about it.”
That means memorialization revenue is front-loaded near the time of death. Ad dollars and floral purchases depend on site traffic, which peaks right around the funeral and then tumbles. Legacy capitalizes on this brief period of profitability by controlling—competitors might say hijacking—site traffic. Obituary content is laden with keywords, and sophisticated SEO strategies help Legacy capture an increasing share of those organic searches. In April, the company acquired Obitdata.com, which supplies market intelligence to businesses ranging from family owned funeral homes to makers of eco-friendly seagrass caskets. This move may have paid off already: Avi Guedj, an insights analyst at SimilarWeb, assessed Legacy’s site traffic at my request and found a 9 percent spike in year-over-year organic searches between 2016 and 2017.
In fact, an obituary on Legacy.com may outrank the same obituary posted on the funeral home’s own website or in the local paper. “The reality is that Legacy.com is stealing your website traffic and costing you money—and charging you for the privilege of doing so,” warns Frazer Consultants, which markets websites and other technology tools to funeral homes. Newspapers, too, say Legacy diverts traffic that would otherwise go to their online editions. But newspapers have driven readers away, says Robin Heppell, by overcharging to print an obituary and later holding the online version for ransom behind a paywall, forcing a “sponsor” to pony up as much as $79.99 to make the content publicly available again.
All this squabbling over ad dollars and whatnot plays into the hands of those who accuse death care professionals of “phishing for phools,” as economists Robert Shiller and George Akerlof put it. Grieving people are “ripe for exploitation by purveyors of salvation, social respectability, or, nowadays in America, ‘closure,’ ” says Tony Walter, a professor of death studies (yeah, that’s a thing) at the University of Bath. Detractors point to cases such as the charity swindle involving online obituaries settled by the state of Vermont last year. A company called Givealike worked with another company to develop a plugin that would replace the family’s designated charity with a link to the Givealike website. Givealike would then accept donations for a range of charities, charging the donor a tidy transaction fee. Givealike contracted with CurrentObituary.com and Tributes.com (a former rival acquired by Legacy in 2015) to run the plugin. The scheme was shut down, and Givealike was fined $15,311.
Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Public Affairs told me no actions are pending against any other virtual memorial or obituary site. In fact, many entrepreneurs in this space are motivated not by dollar signs, but by personal experience. “It feels, to me, like an honest-to-goodness calling,” said Rob Keefe, whose sister’s death sparked the idea for B-eMortal, a now-defunct postmortem messaging app.
Just be sure to read the fine print if you opt for any virtual memorial platform, or you might end up subscribing to unwanted newsletters, giving away your copyright, sharing your personal data with advertisers, consenting to hidden fees, or paying out the yin yang for cloud storage hiding behind a widow’s veil. Vivala.Me, an admittedly great-looking document storage and postmortem messaging tool, offers 2 GB of space for a one-time fee of—wait for it—$499, making Chronicle of Life seem like a sweet deal at just $179.99 for the same amount of space. (Both offer monthly plans as well.) But you could instead put up your own memorial on WordPress and get 3 GB for free.
Memorial sites, such as those on a funeral home’s own website, sometimes even hawk items to site visitors. Some ObitTree memorial sites feature a memorial candle your visitors can “light” as a tribute to the deceased. The “proceeds”—$10 per month—will “provide the gift of extending the [tribute site or guest book] for future generations.” $10, though, is more than enough to host an entire website for a month. Of course, you could stretch your dollar by coughing up $20 to light that bad boy for a whole year, or go all in and keep the sucker burning “in perpetuity” for the low, low price of $50—a deal that might make a payday lender feel like he needs a shower.
Legacy.com has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau with remarkably few complaints for a company of its size (only four in the past three years). It gives consumers, historians, and genealogists a large, searchable repository of obituaries. Medical researchers have even used its records to find mortality data for patients lost to follow-ups in clinical trials. Convenient ads save visitors the hassle of going elsewhere to buy, donate, or give. Without these nudges, perhaps many charitable gifts wouldn’t be made at all. So why all the hand-wringing?
The concern is that this consolidation of capital and clout can discourage competition and sap productivity, creating a drag on the economy as a whole. The only competitor in a position to poach significant business from Legacy is Ancestry.com. The genealogy giant controls a monopoly of its own, including AncestryDNA. Ancestry recently fattened its portfolio by purchasing FindaGrave.com, a virtual cemetery that gets 10 million monthly visits, according to SimilarWeb—about one-fourth the number of monthly visits to Ancestry itself. Ancestry also acquired Memoriams.com, a service that lets users “easily price and place obituaries in thousands of newspapers.” It may be, then, that we’re about to watch a death match play out as Legacy and Ancestry do their best to bury each other.