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Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Bizarre Cottage Industry of YouTube Obituary Pirates

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine found out that a childhood classmate had died unexpectedly. They hadn’t stayed in touch, but he was sad and curious about what had happened, so he did what people do when they hear that someone they know has passed away: Googled her obituary. What he found was odd—so much so that he texted to ask if I’d ever heard of such a thing. Along with pages hosting her official obit, he saw 10 separate YouTube videos of different people casually reciting information about her death.

He’s now part of a group united by an unsettling but increasingly commonplace experience. People who lose somebody, whether it’s a dearly cherished family member or a long-lost acquaintance, must now navigate a slimy cottage industry of profiteers trying to hijack their attention. Instead of finding important funeral details or where to write a remembrance or send flowers, they are confronted by a flood of low-budget videos crudely summarizing the death notices of the person they’ve lost.

Obituary pirating, where people scrape and republish obituaries from funeral homes and websites like Legacy.com, has been an ethically dubious business for years. Piracy websites are often skilled enough at search engine optimization to rise to the top of search results, and they use the resulting traffic to charge a premium for digital ads that appear next to text lifted wholesale from funeral homes, local newspapers, and other authorized obituary publishers. Occasionally, these pirate sites go a step further, manipulating bereaved people into buying sympathy gifts like candles or flowers and pocketing the money.

The flood of YouTube obituary videos is a janky update on this practice. Some of these channels upload dozens of death notice summaries every hour, abandoning any pretense of looking like an official source of information in an effort to churn out as many videos as they can.

Although text-based obituary pirating has been a scourge on the industry for years, these videos are a more recent phenomenon. “This is a new one for me,” says Jessica Koth, director of public relations for the National Funeral Directors Association. “These videos are not sanctioned or authorized by the funeral home or family of the person who died. I would imagine they would be quite upsetting to the families involved.”

Unhappy posts about the practice abound on Reddit, where for the past few years people have complained about how tasteless it is and wondered why it is happening and whether they can do anything to stop it. “These people are monetizing our loved ones’ deaths,” says one such message.

“It’s predatory toward people who are heavily grieving,” says another. “If there’s nothing that can be done about this, that’s extremely sad.”

The more prolific channels upload new videos every few minutes. Many look nearly identical and feature men sitting alone and speaking directly to the camera. They often appear to be lounging at home. (It’s hard to verify exactly where they are; I reached out to the proprietors of several accounts, but none responded.) Others narrate obituaries over corny slideshows of candles and photos of the deceased sourced from social media. Their subscriber numbers are modest, making it all even more puzzling; on the higher end, channels will have a few thousand subscribers and millions of overall views. The highest follower count I found was slightly over 26,000; the page with the highest views had a grand total of around 1.7 million.

Sometimes these obituary YouTubers promote products in the video description, like a $225 vitamin C cream for sale on Amazon. Sometimes they just list strings of SEO-baiting keywords, like “death,” “cause of death,” “die,” “RIP,” and “what happened.” While each channel differs from the next in small ways, there’s a unifying aesthetic—everything looks rushed and careless, and there’s no hint of emotion or acknowledgement that they’re discussing someone’s greatest tragedy.

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