Soliciting Money from the Bereaved

Providing services to the bereaved is a tricky business. You’re trying to make money, trying to make a living. Fair enough. So, you offer services. And you charge for them. Fair enough. And then you push your business one step too far.

Witness this sleazy marketing strategy, from Legacy provides web-based obituaries for newspapers, including the Ottawa Citizen (and, apparently, many other papers). Place an obituary in the Citizen, and part of the package is an online obituary and online guestbook, where friends & family can leave their condolences. Nice feature.

What happens a year later isn’t so nice.

A year later, the clock runs out on the guestbook. OK, that’s reasonable. You’ve paid for a service, but not necessarily a perpetual one. But what does do next? They contact everyone who signed the guestbook, and ask if they would like to pay — $89 — to keep the guestbook going. You can imagine friends of the family everywhere doing a double-take, staring at the email. “Me? Do I want to keep the guestbook going?” Huh?

Now imagine the next-of-kin, humiliated at learning that is soliciting money from their friends, from the kind souls who offered their condolences in a time of grief.

Here’s a sample of the email sends out:

Well, maybe when this supportive friend-of-the-family signed the guestbook to start with, they somehow agreed to be contacted later?

Nope. Here’s what their guestbook looks like, just prior to signing:

Several checkboxes, but none that says “Yes, please feel free to contact me in a year to ask me for money.” The result is just an out-of-the-blue grab for cash, from confused-and-embarrassed friends of the dearly departed.

This is a great business ethics case.’s behaviour here is perfectly legal, as it should be. But it’s sleazy. And they should be told so. And the Citizen (and the other newspapers that deal with should tell them so. Unsolicited commercial emails are bad. Unsolicited commercial emails to the friends and family of the bereaved? Shameful!
I’m having second thoughts about having asserted that what does is “perfectly legal” (but sleazy). It may not be legal after all. A couple of colleagues have pointed out that might be violating privacy legislation, including the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act . I’m no expert on privacy legislation, so I can’t say whether has violated PIPEDA. But they’ve certainly violated its spirit.

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