Know your rights with online obituary sites

Online obituaries are turning into a bit of a minefield for the families of recently deceased loved ones.
CBC News recently reported on the family of John Rothwell and their run-in with a funeral home and marketing company making money off their online tribute to the pancreatic cancer victim.

Rothwell’s son told the news outlet that his father wanted any donations from mourners to go to an educational fund he had set up, and so included a request for donations in lieu of flowers as part of the death notice.

However, the son later discovered that some of those who saw the obituary online instead clicked on a link to buy “memorial trees” or other products dedicated to Rothwell, which had no connection to the family at all and had been placed there by the marketing company that runs the funeral home’s website.

“My family felt taken advantage of. We were obviously in a pretty vulnerable situation, anybody who’s lost somebody they love knows that,” Rothwell’s son said. “Family and friends spent money out of their own pockets for what they thought were my dad’s wishes.”

According to the CBC, the marketing company would not say how much it makes from the links, but charges $39.95 for the tree planting service that non-profits said typically cost them between 20 cents and $5 to carry out.

After the family complained, the marketing company contributed over $2,000 to the Rothwell foundation, doubling the amount mourners had paid for trees. It still insists that it did nothing wrong, explaining that it adds the links to obituaries by default and relies on funeral homes to tell them when individual families want them removed.

The Bereavement Authority of Ontario, which regulates funeral professionals, has since put out a notice explaining to the public that funeral homes must inform clients is they intend to include advertisements on their loved one’s online obituary or death notice. “It would be unethical not to inform families in advance of signing a funeral services contract. Families can decide once they are informed,” said BAO CEO Carey Smith in the statement.

“Such disclosure is legally required. But more than this, funeral directors should also tell the consumer directly if advertisements of any kind will appear in their online or printed obituary or death notice. People grieving the loss of a loved one may not read every part of their contract. So, telling them upfront is the right thing to do.”

It’s not the first time an online obituary business has hit the headlines – a couple of years ago, a class action was launched on behalf of the family members of more than one million Canadians whose death notices and pictures were reproduced without permission on a now defunct website.

A judge hearing the case awarded $20 million in damages to class members after concluding that the business’ owner had infringed their copyright. According to the ruling, the website’s terms of service asserted copyright over all its contents, and generated profits via advertising for third-party businesses, as well as the sale of flowers and virtual candles for posting on individual obituary pages. “The evidence of many Class Members is that they had written the obituaries in a personal way and that their discovery that the obituaries had been reproduced with the addition of sales of candles and other advertising was an emotional blow to them.

In some cases, inconsistent information was added, for example, inaccurate details about the deceased or options to order flowers where the family had specifically discouraged flowers,” the judge wrote. The burden of vetting funeral homes and online obituary providers will most often fall on estate trustees, whose responsibility for funeral arrangements is one of the first items on their extensive task list, but an experienced lawyer can help guide them through the process and ensure they meet their obligations.

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