Before he died of pancreatic cancer in April, John Rothwell made his final wishes clear: If mourners want to donate to a cause in their name, the money should go to an education fund he and his family set up.
Instead, family and friends unwittingly paid for a product that put money in the pockets of companies that profited from grief, says his son.
“It’s really alarming,” Nathan Rothwell, 36, from Toronto, told Go Public.
“My family felt taken advantage of. We were obviously in a very vulnerable situation, anyone who has lost a loved one knows that.”
Rothwell knew his obituary would be on the website of the Mackey Funeral Home in Lindsay, Ont., so he made sure it included a request for mourners to consider donating to the education fund instead of flowers.
What no one told the family, Kingston, Ont. based Frontrunner The marketing company that runs the funeral home’s website and many others around the country – uses obituaries to sell “memorial” trees and other products.
Nathan says the obituary contains links to a different website that says “Plant a tree in memory of John Rothwell” and where mourners pay for items the family knows nothing about.
“Family and friends spent their own money on what they thought were my father’s wishes,” Nathan said.
He says this is the case, even though much more money was eventually donated to the education fund. “disturbing.”
Memorial ‘trees’ are often just seedlings
Frontrunner takes $39.95 to plant a tree, which is usually a seedling donated by outside organizations and governments and planted by students or volunteers, according to the Canadian Forestry Institute (CIF), a nonprofit group found by Go Public. coordinates planting.
Frontrunner wouldn’t tell Go Public how much he earned from those sales or how much he gave to CIF. But two nonprofit tree planting organizations say it costs between 20 cents and $5 to plant a seedling.
After Nathan complained and involved a lawyer, Frontrunner removed one of the links to buy trees, doubled what mourners paid for the trees, and donated that money—more than $2,000—to an education fund.
However, he continued to feature the trees on the obituary’s memorial page, but Go Public removed them after the family complained about why the company was still selling the trees. Jules Green, CEO of Frontrunner, said in an email to Go Public that some links were “accidentally left.”
Consumer lawyer Jeff Orenstein says funeral home shouldn’t exist He allowed this to happen in the first place.
“The family trusts them with all these arrangements… directing the funds to where they need to go, I think it’s an integral part of the agreement signed between the family and the funeral home,” he told Go Public.
“This should really teach the funeral home a lesson… They should know what’s going on on their website, and I find it problematic that they don’t,” Orenstein added.
The family did not take legal action. Frontrunner says he didn’t do anything wrong.
The company tells Go Public that its links are added to obituaries by default and that it is the responsibility of each funeral home to notify mourners if they wish to have it removed.
“Our all-in-one platform offers families personalized, memorable and meaningful ways to commemorate loved ones, helping to ease the burden that surrounds a very difficult time in families’ lives,” said Green.
In another email to Go Public, funeral home owner Linden Mackey says selling to mourners this way is “an industry standard” that consumers expect.
Not so, says David Brazeau, director of communications for the Ontario Mourning Association (BAO), the provincial funeral industry regulator. He says this is not standard and families should be clearly informed.
“To prevent this kind of surprise from happening, it’s really important that families understand what’s in their contract, and especially what’s in the death notice, because that’s really unfair to families and may not represent the wishes of the family or the deceased,” he said.
The BAO then warned consumers and funeral providers that not disclosing advertisements in an obituary was unethical and illegal under the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act.
Its laws and rules do not apply to the marketing company.
The contract says nothing about tree ads
The Rothwells’ contract with the funeral home lists commissions it has received from other third-party companies, including an online florist, a memorial company, and a company that makes memorial memorabilia, but nothing about obituaries used to sell trees.
Mackey acknowledges that it has not disclosed Frontrunner affiliations verbally or in contract, and says the funeral home’s contracts will clarify any sales commissions going forward.
WATCH | Family who saw advertisements in obituaries:
After hearing from Go Public, Mackey also removed the memorial product ads from the Funeral Home’s website.
Mackey says he receives a commission of $85 from Frontrunner over a three-month period, which he thinks is for all purchases made on the website. But he said he did not disclose details about his commission.
Some of the money from tree sales also goes to the Canadian Forest Institute, which receives what it calls a “nominal portion” for its role in coordinating plantings.
CIF did not say how much money it received from Frontrunner, citing its “contractual obligations”.
Number of trees planted from these sales is also uncertain.
In 2019, a federal court ruled that a different company’s efforts to monetize obituaries and memorial-themed products were illegal after the Afterlife website broke copyright laws.
Unlike Frontrunner and Mackey Funeral Home, which had the family’s permission to publish the obituary (but not the ads), the Afterlife website was copying and pasting obituaries from other websites without the families’ consent.
St. Petersburg, who learned two years after his son’s death that his obituary and the poem he wrote for him were used to sell digital sympathy products like candles and cards. It included John’s mother, Raylene Manning.
“I literally hit the ground. It was like someone had kicked me right in the heart. I was so upset,” Manning told Go Public.
“[I thought] Are these people taking advantage of our deceased loved ones?”
Afterlife closed after losing $20 million lawsuit for copyright infringement – what the judge called “obituary piracy”.
But that hasn’t stopped its director, Pascal Leclerc, from continuing to sell memorial products through another website, Echovita.com.
The FAQ section of this website says it doesn’t copy and paste obituaries and only publishes “death notices made up of basic facts: names, cities, and dates.”
Still, Echovita has been the subject of two complaints to Quebec’s consumer protection office and at least a dozen unofficial complaints online, mostly allegations that the republished death news contained serious errors that confused and upset mourners.
In an email to Go Public, Leclerc said any complaints were “handled with care and in a timely manner” and any necessary corrections were made.
As for cases like the Rothwells, where obituaries aren’t removed from other sites but are still used to make money, BAO says he wasn’t aware of the problem until Go Public caught their attention. Formal complaints from consumers about obituaries are rare.
One reason may be that some state regulators, whose laws say nothing about obituaries, fall outside of their jurisdiction.
For example, funeral organizers in Alberta and Saskatchewan say they’ve heard of the issue, but both states’ funeral service legislation says nothing about online obituaries, and neither regulator has jurisdiction over companies operating out of state.
Nathan Rothwell isn’t sure what the solution is, but says Canadians need to know what’s going on so they can protect themselves.
“When this matter came to my attention,” he said, “I never thought about my father and what he would do in this situation.
wouldn’t let her go [so] I decided to go after him to protect others from this incident.”
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