Funerals used to be a family affair but with the price of a full-scale funeral rising and the finances of many consumers stuck in neutral, it’s getting so that many families have a hard time coming up with the money to finance a funeral when a loved one dies. Increasingly, they’re turning to strangers for help, posting pleas on GoFundMe and other social media.
There are several disadvantages to this, the most obvious being that many of the appeals don’t hit their goal. This could leave a family stuck with thousands of dollars in funeral bills that they’re not able to pay. There’s also an obvious risk to those who pony up to help strangers who appear to be in need. To put it bluntly, there’s always the risk the appeal is bogus.
Generally speaking, it’s not wise to give money to someone you only “know” through the internet, whether for funerals or anything else. It’s best to stick to established charities and people in your family, community, and social circle. Fraud is very common on the internet and recovering your money is usually impossible.
GoFundMe says most appeals are genuine but there is a long history of phonies, many of them somewhat shocking. Take the case of Victoria Jackson, 24, of Pinellas County, Florida. She raised over $4,000 in funeral expenses for her 10-month-old son, Malachi, found unresponsive in his crib. Jackson set up a GoFundMe account just a week after the baby died. “I want to give my son the best memorial service I can. He died last Friday night,” her appeal read. “I’ve never been so heartbroken in my life.”
Now police say she has admitted to killing him by holding a pillow over his face. She faces first-degree murder charges. GoFundMe says it is returning about $4,300 raised in the campaign, under terms of its donor protection program and says it monitors all campaigns to ensure they are valid.
But a site devoted to exposing phony online appeals — GoFraudMe — has published a steady stream of what it said were bogus campaigns, including people who fake illness, “friends” who organize campaigns and then keep the money and a surprising number of parents who allegedly kill their children, then try to raise money for their funeral.
Most GoFundMe appeals well-intentioned
Certainly, many GoFundMe funeral appeals tug at the heartstrings and are probably well-intentioned. Take the case of Benjamin Cobb, 4. He was mauled to death Oct. 29 by a dog in the Detroit area despite his mother’s attempts to fight off the attack with scissors and later a steak knife. In North Dakota, relatives of two families murdered in Mexico were trying to raise $100,000. In Kansas City, a campaign was raising money for Martin Rodriguez-Gonzalez, a Cuban man who was killed in a mass shooting at a bar.
How can you tell whether an appeal is genuine? Obviously, appeals for cases that receive widespread publicity in the news media are more likely to be on the level than appeals for someone you never heard of. But unlike donations you make to an established charity, there is no supervision and you have no guarantee that the funds will be spent for the stated purpose. For that matter, you usually have no way to know whether the person raising the funds will actually use them for the intended purpose.
If you think you have been scammed by a campaign that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, you can contact GoFundMe and file a claim. But the GoFraudMe site noted that there are several initial hoops you need to jump through, which may make the process more trouble than it’s worth.
For its part, GoFundMe denies that fraud is rampant on its platform. “An overwhelming majority of fundraisers on the site are safe and legitimate, as fraudulent fundraisers make up less than one-tenth of 1% of all fundraisers on GoFundMe,” it says on its website.
Crowdfunding’s effect on established charities
Besides the risk that consumers’ donations will be misused, crowdfunding has the potential to disrupt donations to charities that have professional staffs to deliver services to those in need.
GoFundMe reports that it has raised more than $17 billion through more than 200 million donations. That’s a lot of money that could have been given to actual charities.
Most communities are fully stocked with churches, social service agencies and other professionally run organizations that provide emergency aid to families in need. By going it alone and contributing through an online forum, you are not only putting your money at risk but also potentially depriving established charities of the donation you might otherwise have given them.
Also, it bears pointing out that donations to GoFundMe and other informal appeals are not tax deductible, unlike donations to established 501(c)(3) charities.
Then there is the matter of profit. GoFundMe is a for-profit company. It charges a 2.9 percent fee on each donation and also a 30-cent fee for processing each donation. So if a campaign raises $1,000 from 100 donors, GoFundMe would deduct $59 ($29 for the 2.9% fee and $30 for the 30-cent per donation fee).
GoFraudMe estimated in one recent year, GoFundMe had collected $17 million for funeral appeals.
“There is one really simple way for GoFundMe to mitigate this obviously rampant form of fraud: hold any funeral fundraisers for review and require proof of relation to the deceased before allowing the campaign to go live,” GoFraudMe said in its 2016 report.
Despite these drawbacks, GoFundMe and similar programs appeal to millions of consumers, and a recent acquisition may help GoFundMe burnish its reputation as a source of philanthropic funding. In January 2022, the company acquired Classy, a fundraising company that works for nonprofits.
“GoFundMe’s vision is to be the most helpful place in the world and partnering with Classy enables us to do that in a differentiated way,” said GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan, adding that the acquisition “can create a uniquely powerful network that connects donors on GoFundMe to nonprofits who use Classy,” the Associated Press reported.
Alternatives to GoFundMe
The ideal solution to underwriting final expenses is to plan ahead through insurance, savings or a preplanning arrangement with a funeral home. Of course, death often comes as a surprise and many families simply don’t have the means to get ahead of their day-to-day living expenses and put a few dollars aside to meet their final expenses.
Another, perhaps more workable, solution is to keep funeral expenses to a minimum. It’s really not necessary to have several visitation sessions and a full-blown funeral complete with embalming, coffin, cemetery plot and limousines. Families often feel they owe their departed loved one a lavish send-off but doing so at the expense of the living isn’t really necessary.
Families can hold down expenses by choosing direct cremation, a process that cuts out embalming, coffins and burial plots. The body is taken to a crematory and after cremation, the remains are presented in a simple container. The family can hold a memorial service at a church, community center or an outdoor site at a convenient time. Amazon and other online retailers sell affordable, attractive urns for just a few dollars.
If a full-blown funeral is desired, it should be treated like any other consumer purchase. Funeral homes are required by the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule to provide a printed breakdown of all charges. This enables consumers to pick only the services they want and also makes it possible to compare prices from one funeral home to another.
Families may be overcome with grief after an unexpected death, making it important for relatives, clergy and friends to step in and make sure the survivors aren’t guided into spending more than they can afford. The deceased would not want their legacy to be years of consumer debt.
A simple, heartfelt and economical ceremony of remembrance can be as fulfilling as an elaborate ceremony that leaves the family thousands of dollars in debt. Money that might have been spent on an elaborate coffin and burial vault can instead be used to benefit the bereaved family and to hold a memorial gathering at the deceased’s favorite restaurant, fishing spot or scenic retreat.
If you’re thinking of contributing to a GoFundMe appeal, consider this advice from GoFundMe: “Only donate to people you personally know & trust.” That, of course, eliminates the need for social media go-betweens.
An earlier version of this story appeared on ObitCenter.com.