Profiting on the Web
By Judith Sheppard
Judith Sheppard teaches journalism at Auburn University.
FUNERAL HOME OPERATORS , life insurance companies, genealogists and entrepreneurs of other stripes are tapping into the online obit market.
One California Internet advertising firm called Classics in Graphics opened a site in January (www.imminentdomain.com) offering free obits that stay on the Web for at least 30 days. It also allows the bereaved to choose from a variety of online memorials--including the $299.95 "platinum" for a year's posting of photo collages and mourners' remembrances of the dead.
Others, such as Armstrong Funeral Home's Cemetery Gate (www.funeral.net), charge for posting a eulogy: $25 for one without a photo, $50 for one with. But, notes funeral home and Web site owner Bruce Armstrong, the rates are cheaper than a newspaper's notice.
Users find the online obit pages attractive for a number of reasons. Many sites display the obits for an indefinite length of time, as opposed to a one-day listing in a newspaper. And many sites send readers directly to bereavement titles at online book stores, or to Web pages for support groups familiar with their specific loss--of a spouse, child or twin.
The demand for such online services is only going to increase, predicts Steve Lacy, a Florida-based public management consultant and amateur genealogist, who in 1995 started a Web site (www.gengateway.com) that links to hundreds of searchable obit sites and thousands of genealogy listings as an extension of his hobby. His site's monthly visitor count has quadrupled in the past year, from 144,000 in February 1998 to 563,000 this January, he says.
Readers' interest in obits presents a ripe opportunity for newspapers, if only they would see it, Lacy says.
Some newspaper editors do. Jim Gouvellis, editor of the Sun Herald in Port Charlotte, Florida, says online obits are part of the reason his newspaper's Web site (www.sun-herald.com) has won a number of awards. One innovation: "advance obituaries" prepared by the not-yet-deceased, which run after their death.
"They're kind of interesting," Gouvellis allows, "but we make [the families] run them through an attorney first, just in case" something libelous about a survivor might sneak in.
Andrea Panciera, editor of the Providence Journal's Web site (www.projo.com), understands obits' popularity. She says they are among the top five most-visited pages of the site. In fact, she's hoping to upgrade their packaging soon, to offer something like the Boston Globe's online death notice page (www.boston.com/globe/ deaths). There, visitors are just a click away from Yellow Pages listings of funeral homes, florist shops, casket retailers and crematories.