Before pancreatic cancer took its life in April, John Rothwell made his dying wishes clear: If mourners wanted to donate to a cause in his name, the money would go to an education fund he and his family set up.
Instead, family and friends unknowingly paid for a product that puts money in the pockets of companies that profit from grief, his son says.
“It’s really alarming,” Nathan Rothwell, 36, of Toronto, told Go Public.
“My family felt exploited. We were obviously in a pretty vulnerable situation, as anyone who has lost someone they love knows.”
Rothwell knew the obituary would be on the Mackey Funeral Home website 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 is that Frontrunner-a Kingston, Ont., – based marketing company that runs the home of the funeral home and many others across the country – uses obituaries to sell what it calls “memorial trees” and other products.
The obituary contained links that said “Plant a tree in memory of John Rothwell” and led to another site where mourners paid for products the family knew nothing about, Nathan says.
“Family and friends spent money out of their own pocket for what they thought was my father’s wishes,” Nathan said.
Although many more money was eventually donated to the education fund, he says the situation was “disturbing.”
Memorial trees ‘often’ just seedlings
Frontrunner charges $ 39.95 to plant a tree that Go Public has often found to be a seedling donated by outside organizations and governments and planted by students or volunteers, according to the Canadian Institute of Forestry (CIF), the non. -profit group that coordinates the planting.
Frontrunner would not tell Go Public how much it earns on this sale, or how much it gives to CIF. However, two non-profit tree planting organizations say the cost of planting a seedling ranges from 20 cents to $ 5.
After Nathan complained and got a lawyer involved, Frontrunner removed one of the tree-buying links, doubled what mourners paid for the trees, and donated that money – more than $ 2,000 – to the education fund.
But it continued to offer the trees on the obituary’s memorial page and removed them only after Go Public asked why the company was still selling trees after the family complained. In an email to Go Public, Frontrunner CEO Jules Green said some links “inadvertently remained.”
Consumer Advocate Jeff Orenstein says the funeral home should not have let this happen in the first place.
“The family trusts them with all these arrangements … to direct funds wherever they go, I would 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 site, and I think it’s problematic that they did not,” Orenstein added.
The family did not continue with lawsuits. Frontrunner says it did nothing 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 inform them if mourners want them removed.
“Our all-in-one platform helps ease the burden around a very difficult time in family life by providing them with personal, memorable and meaningful ways to remember their loved ones,” Green wrote.
In another email to Go Public, funeral home owner Linden Mackey says this way of selling to mourners is “an industry standard” that consumers expect.
Not so, says David Brazeau, communications chief of the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), the province’s funeral industry regulator. He says it is not standard and that families need to be clearly informed.
“It’s really important that families … understand what’s in their contract and specifically what’s in the obituary to prevent this kind of surprise from happening because it’s really unfair to families and may not represent the wishes of the family or the deceased, “he said.
BAO later warned consumers and funeral providers that a failure to publish advertisements on an obituary is unethical and illegal under the Funeral, Funeral and Cremation Act.
The law and its rules do not apply to the marketing company.
Contract says nothing about wooden ads
The contract Rothwells had with the funeral home shows commissions it receives from other third-party companies, including an online florist, a monument company and a company that makes memorials, but nothing about obituaries used to sell trees.
Mackey admits he failed to disclose Frontrunner links verbally or in the contract, saying his funeral home contracts will make any sales commission ready in the future.
SE | Family angry over seeing obituaries:
After hearing from Go Public, he also removed memorial product ads from Mackey Funeral Home’s website.
Mackey says that over a three-month period, he received a $ 85 commission from Frontrunner, which he believes is for all purchases made on his site. But he says he has not told the details of his commission.
Some of the money from the tree sale also goes to the Canadian Institute of Forestry, which receives what it calls “a nominal portion” for its role in coordinating the plantations.
CIF would not say how much money it receives from Frontrunner, referring to “contractual obligations”.
The number of trees planted from this sale is also unclear.
In 2019, a federal court found another company’s efforts to make money on obituaries and memorial-themed products were illegal after the Afterlife website broke copyright law.
Unlike Frontrunner and Mackey Funeral Home, which had the family’s permission to post the obituary (but not the ads), the Afterlife website copied and pasted obituaries from other sites without the family’s permission.
The complaint included St. John’s mother Raylene Manning, who two years after her son’s death taught the obituary and the poem she wrote to him, was used to sell digital sympathy products such as candles and cards.
“I literally hit the floor. It was like someone had kicked me right in the heart. I was so sorry,” Manning told Go Public.
“[I thought] do these people benefit from our loved ones who have passed away? “
The afterlife closed down after it lost $ 20 million lawsuit for copyright infringement – what the judge called “obituary piracy”.
But that did not stop the director, Pascal Leclerc, from continuing to sell memorials through another site, Echovita.com.
Frequently asked questions on this site say it does not copy and paste obituaries, and only sends “obituaries consisting of basic facts: names, cities, and dates.”
Nevertheless, Echovita is the subject of two complaints filed with the Quebec Consumer Protection Office and at least a dozen informal complaints online, mainly allegations that its reissued obits contained serious errors that confused and disturbed mourners.
In an email to Go Public, Leclerc says that any complaint is “dealt with diligently and in a timely manner” and that necessary corrections are made.
As for situations like Rothwells, where obituaries are not lifted from elsewhere but are still used to make money, BAO says it was not aware of the issue until Go Public brought it to their attention. Official complaints from consumers about obituaries are rare.
One reason may be because it often falls outside the jurisdiction of some provincial regulators whose legislation says nothing about obituaries.
For example, Alberta and Saskatchewan Funeral Homes say they have heard about the problem, but none of the county’s funeral services law says anything about online obituaries, and none of the regulators have jurisdiction over companies operating outside the province.
Nathan Rothwell is not sure what the solution is, but says Canadians need to know what is happening so they can protect themselves.
“When this problem was brought to my attention,” he said, “there is no doubt that I was thinking of my father and what he would do in this situation.
He would not have let it be [so] I decided to pursue it … to protect others from this. “
Submit your ideas to the story
Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the Internet.
We tell your stories, shed light on transgressions, and hold the forces responsible.
If you have a story in the public interest, or if you are an insider with information, please contact GoPublic@cbc.ca with your name, contact information and a brief summary. All emails are confidential until you decide to publish.
Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.
Read more stories by Go Public.