Before pancreatic cancer cost him his life in April, John Rothwell made his wish to die clear: If mourners wanted to donate to a cause on his behalf, the money should go to an education fund set up by himself and his family.
Instead, family and friends unwittingly paid for a product that is pocketing money from companies that benefit from the grief, his son says.
“It’s really alarming,” Toronto-based Nathan Rothwell, 36, told Go Public.
“My family felt exploited. We were obviously in a rather vulnerable situation, as anyone who has lost a loved one knows.”
Rothwell knew the obituary would be on the Mackey Funeral Home website in Lindsay, Ontario, so he made sure the mourners were asked to consider donating to the Education Fund in lieu of flowers.
What no one told the family is that Frontrunner – a Kingston, Ontario resident Marketing company that runs the funeral home website and many others across the country – uses obituaries to sell so-called “memorial trees” and other products.
The obituary included links that read, “Plant a Tree in Memory of John Rothwell,” and it led to another website where mourners paid for products the family didn’t know about, Nathan says.
“Family and friends spent out of their own pocket money on my father’s wishes,” said Nathan.
Although much more money was eventually donated to the Education Fund, he says the situation is “unsettling.”
Memorial trees are often just saplings
Frontrunner is charging $ 39.95 to plant a tree, which Go Public says is often a seedling donated by outside organizations and governments and planted by students or volunteers, according to the Canadian Institute of Forestry (CIF) non-profit group that coordinates the planting.
Frontrunner wouldn’t tell Go Public how much it makes of those sales or how much it gives to the CIF. However, two nonprofit tree-planting organizations say the cost of planting a seedling ranges from $ 20 cents to $ 5.
After Nathan complained and hired a lawyer, Frontrunner removed one of the tree purchase links, doubled the amount the 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 memorial page of the obituary, only removing them 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 that some links were “accidentally left”.
Consumer attorney Jeff Orenstein says the funeral home shouldn’t do this let this happen in the first place.
“The family entrusts them with all of these arrangements … getting the funds where they should go, I think that’s an integral part of the agreement that the family has signed with the funeral home,” he told Go Public.
“This should really teach the funeral home a lesson … they should know what is going on on their website, and I find it problematic that they didn’t,” Orenstein added.
The family did not take legal action. Frontrunner says it didn’t do anything wrong.
The company tells Go Public that its links will be added to obituaries by default and that it is the responsibility of each funeral home to notify them if mourners want to remove them.
“Our all-in-one platform helps ease the burden of a very difficult time in families’ lives by providing them with personalized, memorable, and meaningful ways to remember loved ones,” Green wrote.
In another email to Go Public, funeral home owner Linden Mackey says this type of sales to mourners is “an industry standard” that consumers have come to expect.
Not so, says David Brazeau, communications manager for the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), the province’s funeral industry regulator. He says this is not a standard and that families need to be clearly informed.
âIt is really important that the familiesâ¦ understand what is in their contract and especially the obituary notice to avoid such surprises as this is really unfair to the families and may not reflect the wishes of the family or the deceased. ” he said.
The BAO later warned consumers and funeral directors that failing to disclose advertising in an obituary was unethical and unethical and illegal under the Funeral, Funeral and Cremation Services Act.
The law and its rules do not apply to the marketing company.
Contract says nothing about tree displays
The contract the Rothwells had with the funeral home lists commissions they receive from other third party companies, including an online florist, memorial company, and a company that makes commemorative souvenirs, but nothing about obituaries used to sell trees .
Mackey admits he didn’t disclose the Frontrunner links orally or in the contract and says his funeral home’s contracts will make any future sales commission clear.
CLOCK | Family upset about ads on obituary notices:
After hearing about Go Public, he also removed the commemorative product ads from the Mackey Funeral Home website.
Mackey says he received a $ 85 commission from Frontrunner over a three month period, which he believes applies to all purchases on his website. But he says he did not share the details with his commission.
Some of the money from tree sales also goes to the Canadian Institute of Forestry, which receives a so-called “nominal share” for its role in coordinating the plantings.
The CIF wouldn’t say how much money it was getting from Frontrunner, citing “contractual obligations”.
The number of trees planted from these sales is also unclear.
In 2019, a federal court ruled that another company’s efforts to make money from obituaries and commemorative products were illegal after the Afterlife website broke copyright laws.
Unlike Frontrunner and Mackey Funeral Home, who had family permission to post the obituary (but not the ads), Afterlife’s website copied and pasted obituaries from other websites without the family’s permission.
The class action lawsuit involved St. John’s mother Raylene Manning, who learned two years after her son’s death that the obituary and poem she wrote for him had been used to sell digital sympathy products like candles and cards.
“I literally fell to the floor. It was like someone kicked me in the heart. I was so upset,” Manning told Go Public.
“[I thought] Do these people benefit from our deceased loved ones? “
The afterlife was closed after it was lost $ 20 million lawsuit for copyright infringement – what the judge called “obituary piracy”.
But that didn’t stop its director, Pascal Leclerc, from continuing to sell commemorative products through another website, Echovita.com.
The FAQ section of this website states that obituaries will not be copied and pasted, only “obituaries made up of basic facts: names, cities and dates”.
Still, Echovita is the subject of two complaints filed with the Quebec Consumer Protection Agency and at least a dozen informal online complaints, mostly allegations that the obituaries republished contained serious errors that confused and angered mourners.
In an email to Go Public, Leclerc said that all complaints would be “handled carefully and promptly” and any necessary corrections made.
In situations like the Rothwells, where obituaries are not removed from other websites but are still used for making money, the BAO says it wasn’t aware of the problem until Go Public pointed it out to them. Official consumer complaints about obituaries are rare.
One reason could be that it often does not fall under the jurisdiction of some provincial regulators whose legislation does not say anything about obituaries.
For example, Alberta and Saskatchewan funeral directors say they heard of the problem, but provincial funeral services legislation says nothing about online obituaries, and none of the regulators have any jurisdiction over companies that operate outside of the province.
Nathan Rothwell isn’t sure what the solution is, but says Canadians need to know what is happening in order to protect themselves.
âWhen this matter came to my attention,â he said, âthere is no question that I was thinking of my father and what he would do in this situation.
He wouldn’t have let it go [so] I decided to follow up … to protect others from this event. “
Submit your story ideas
Go Public is an investigative news segment for CBC TV, radio and the internet.
We tell your stories, shed light on wrongdoing and hold those in power accountable.
If you have a story of public interest or are an insider with information, reach out to [email protected] with your name, contact information, and a brief summary. All email is confidential until you decide to go public.
follow @CBCGoPublic on twitter.
Read more stories from Go Public.