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Obituary Website Tries to Woo Funeral Directors

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Funeral homes are increasingly using online resources, but they still prefer newspaper obituaries.

The obituaries have long been a popular section of the local newspaper. For readers deaths mark milestones in a community, and for many newspapers obituaries are a source of revenue in an era when ad sales are in decline.  

A new website in Vermont hopes to offer an online alternative, but the newspaper obituary is not likely to disappear anytime soon, despite the fact that newspapers are slowly embracing the Internet.

“I think the biggest change has come since funeral homes have developed websites. We developed our website about four and a half years ago,” says Chris Palermo of Perkins Parker Funeral Home in Waterbury. Palermo is also on the board of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association.

Palermo says most funeral homes have websites, which they use to post photos of their facilities, list services and prices and provide funeral planning resources.

Palermo’s funeral home also maintains an active Facebook page, which most Vermont funeral homes do not have. He says Facebook helps drive visits to his website, and the numbers are impressive.

“In the first three quarters of this year we had 326,084 visitors on our website, believe it or not,”  says Palermo.

Many funeral homes also list obituaries on their websites.

Palermo estimates half of his online visitors come to read the obits. 

Despite that traffic, newspaper obituaries remain the central way in which the family and the funeral home announce someone’s passing. Palermo says that's not likely to change.  

“I think that they’re still very much the standard in terms of posting obituaries for families,” he says.

Although some weekly papers run obituaries free as a public service, most newspapers  charge for them.

"If you really want to know who's passed away in Vermont you ought to be able to go to one location and look." - Roger Kohn, Vermontobits.org

Palermo says an average obit in the Burlington Free Press costs about $500.

Newspaper obits may still be a mainstay of the funeral business, but Roger Kohn says  their cost - combined with declining print subscriptions and online paywalls - means fewer people can easily access obituaries.

He thinks he has a better way.  

“If you really want to know who’s passed away in Vermont, you ought to be able to go to one location and look,” says Kohn, a Hinesburg lawyer.

Kohn has established Vermontobits.org, which is free for funeral directors to post obituaries and can be accessed by readers at no charge.

He says unlike newspapers, which generally carry only local obits, Vermontobits.org is also a statewide service. Obituaries posted there are archived and searchable by name or location.

Kohn says he’s had a favorable response when he’s met with funeral directors, but he admits they haven’t used the site as much as he’d hoped: There was a total of seven obituaries posted on the site last month.

"It just seems to be redundant in terms of what we're already doing as local funeral homes." - Chris Palermo, Perkins Parker Funeral Home

“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing because until people know that the site exists and look for obituaries there, some of the funeral directors are hesitant to post. Of course people don’t look until they’re posted,” says Kohn.

Kohn says he’s confident the service will catch on as long as he keeps talking with funeral directors and reminding them its available. Eventually he hopes to carry advertising that he says would be appropriate to the site.

Funeral director Chris Palermo points out that online obits that appear in the state’s major newspapers and the ones on funeral home websites are already gathered in one place at a site called Legacy.com. The site also allows readers to submit condolence messages.

Palermo says he sees nothing wrong with Kohn’s idea, but suggests yet another website may not be necessary.

“I’m not sure we’re convinced how viable a separate website like Vermontobits.org provides. It just seems to be redundant in terms of what we’re already doing as local funeral homes,” he says.