Watch Out for Sky-High Obituary Prices

Watch Out for Sky-High Obituary Prices
Photo by Noah Silliman / Unsplash

Consumers are often surprised by the high price of a simple newspaper obituary, which these days can easily exceed $500. Not too long ago, newspapers ran obits for just a few dollars, but as classified and display advertising have largely moved to the internet, newspapers are taking a more predatory approach to their subscribers’ demise.

“I guess I’m not surprised the Wichita Eagle spelled Steve’s last name wrong, even though it is correct in the submitted obit,” a Kansas woman fumed in a recent Facebook posting.  “The cost to put it in the paper is over $600 WITHOUT A PICTURE.”

She’s not alone. Family members are frequently blindsided by the treatment they get from newspapers they have supported for decades.

“When my mother died, the Belleville News-Democrat soaked me several hundred dollars and never did manage to get the obit into the printed paper,” an Illinois man said.

Perhaps the high prices and offhand service shouldn’t be surprising, considering how hard it is to know in advance what an obit is likely to cost. Most newspapers don’t prominently publish their rates, leaving consumers in the dark until after they have submitted their information, after which they are often subjected to aggressive “up-selling.”

The Washington Post news department prepares and publishes obits of “newsworthy” individuals but the fine-print “death notices” are strictly pay-for-play. And although the Post is outspoken about the need for transparency in public agencies, it publishes the prices of its death notices in its print editions but not online, so that customers often don’t find out what charges they are facing until they have submitted their obit. In many cases, the funeral director submits the notice and passes on the cost, with a generous mark-up, to the bereaved family.

Families surprised by obit prices

Washington Post

“I thought it would be $30 or maybe $40 but it was hundreds,” the Illinois consumer said of his experience. “My mother subscribed to that paper for 70 years. The least they could have done is run a few lines when she died.”

But in fact, newspapers are not charitable institutions and are as determined as the neighborhood used-car lot to get top price for their product, as reflected in their secretive and often confusing pricing policies.

It’s estimated that newspapers are taking in about $500 million per year from obituaries, much of it funneled through companies like Adpay, a onetime classified-ad sales organization that was acquired by Ancestry in 2016 and is now a force to reckon with in the funeral business.

“Our driving mission is to optimize the relationship between newspapers, funeral homes and consumers with effective, easy-to-use business solutions designed to meet everyone’s requirements,” the company says on its website.

While obituary rates vary from one newspaper to another, Adpay estimates that the price of an obit ranges from $318 in small markets to $486 in larger markets, according to a recent Axios story.

Just like used-car dealers and funeral homes, newspapers offer a broad and confusing range of options, charging by the line with added fees for photos and larger type. And, of course, the charges are usually per day, so while a $110 obit may sound reasonable to a bereaved consumer, if it runs for three days, it will cost $330.

To be fair, newspapers don’t pocket all the money. They split it with Adpay and similar companies and with the funeral director.

But just as the internet has diverted advertising money and reader eyeballs, it is also poised to disrupt the lucrative obituary business and perhaps even the funeral home business, as natural burial and informal memorial services gain in popularity.

It’s telling that funeral directors are often not eager to place obituaries with websites that don’t charge for the service. The publisher of this site previously operated a community news site in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and frequently got inquiries from funeral directors seeking to place an obit at their customers’ request. When told the news site did not charge for obits, the funeral directors hung up.

Defenders of the rising prices of obituaries say it is a one-time expense and is relatively minor compared to other end-of-life charges.

Perhaps, but as Axios noted in its story, creeping obit prices extract a social cost as well, making it “easier for the rich to be remembered.” A similar observation came from Barron Lerner, who studied New York Times paid obits in a 2017 Forbes article.

“On the one hand, these notices are democratizing. Anyone can submit one about anyone who has died.  On the other hand, the notices veer in certain directions. … [I]t is hard to place a notice if you do not have a lot of money. The cost is over $50 per line, and each line has only 28 characters. As a result, the paid obituaries are often placed by well-off New Yorkers about well-off New Yorkers.

If you’ve read this far, you are most likely giving some thought to how you want to be remembered after you’re gone. Preparing an account of your life yourself in advance is a great way to make sure the things that are important to you are recorded for posterity.

But, you may be asking yourself, who is going to read what I have written?

Be your own press agent

It’s a fair question. If your family pays to have your obituary published in the local paper, some people who know you may see it, if they happen to pick up a paper that day. But newspaper circulation is shrinking constantly and an obit only appears for a few days.

There are some free obituary sites on the internet and most funeral directors publish an obit on their site as well, usually for a fee. You can also ask your family to post your obit on Facebook or other social media.

The link should be posted on your personal Facebook page before the account is deactivated. That is the easiest way to inform your friends of your passing. Friends and family members should also post the link on their own Facebook pages.

“I’ve seen Facebook’s power firsthand,” a journalist friend said as I was preparing this story. “In 2015 my father died at the age of 95 and I wanted to inform people in the town where he had been pastor of a large church for 25 years. Since he married, buried and baptized thousands of people in the town I thought his death might be a news story, but the local paper said it wasn’t. They were happy to sell me an obituary for $50 though.

“Instead, I posted the obituary I had written on the town’s Facebook page and within minutes began receiving condolences and memories from scores of people, something a newspaper obituary could not provide,” the journalist said.

You can do the same. Put your obit together and provide copies to a few friends or family members with instructions to post it far and wide when the time comes. A death in the family creates plenty of emotional and financial turmoil. There’s no use adding an expensive obit to the process.