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 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.”
Take the Washington Post for example. Although it is outspoken about the need for transparency in public agencies, it does not publish the prices of its death notices and customers don’t find out what charges they are facing until they have submitted their obit.
“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 do 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 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 anxious to place obituaries with websites that don’t charge for the service. The publisher of this site previously operated a community news site in Virginia 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.
Defends 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.