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Alan Goldstein: Funeral homes find way to Web

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Legacy.com offers long-lasting online memorials to deceased

Bound by tradition and dominated by small, family-run enterprises, the funeral services industry has been slow to embrace the Internet.

But a start-up called Legacy.com has figured out a clever way to enter the business, selling online memorials that can offer information about upcoming funeral services and then pay tribute to the departed long after the hearses have left the cemetery. Friends and relatives can visit this Internet portal for years to come to read obituaries, poems and eulogies and to view galleries of electronic photographs.

Generally, "unless you're famous, most people don't get a big article in the newspaper," said Carl Painter, vice president for sales at Legacy.com, who was in Dallas last week talking with Texas funeral directors at a conference. "But we're not limited by space."

Legacy.com can sell its memorials directly to customers over the Internet. But mostly, the Evanston, Ill.-based company is following a clicks-and-mortar approach, with the funeral directors acting as a kind of sales force. Funeral directors offer the online memorial to grieving family members as part of their portfolio of services. Legacy.com staffers write the memorials, or perform basic editing on copy that is submitted to the company.

The Legacy.com site is filled with affectionate tributes. In one, there's a photograph of a man enjoying a polka dance with his daughter at his 100th birthday party. A grandson in his eulogy describes his earliest memories of the man, sitting together in a '49 Chevy panel truck filled with the aroma of chocolate and cigars.

"We want to be the national place to go for online obituaries," Mr. Painter said, citing the oft-repeated mantra of dot.com businesses of gaining the first-mover advantage.

Legacy.com sees its role as gently prodding funeral homes into the Internet age. "Funeral directors run traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, and some of them have no computers yet," Mr. Painter said.

Legacy.com was founded in 1998 as ObitDetails LLC by two Chicago-area investors. Tribune Ventures, the investing arm of Tribune Co. of Chicago, is also backing Legacy.com. Some of Tribune Ventures' other investments include America Online, Excite@Home, Peapod and Replay Networks. Tribune Co. is the parent of the Chicago Tribune, WGN-TV and the Chicago Cubs, and the company is in the process of purchasing Times Mirror Co. of Los Angeles.

Legacy.com isn't yet profitable, and the privately held company doesn't disclose financial data. But a standard online memorial of up to 1,000 words, including a photograph and driving directions to the funeral service, costs the customer $145. (The funeral home gets $50 from the transaction, and pays Legacy.com $95.) The company charges $65 for each additional 1,000 words and $25 for each additional photo.

The site doesn't accept any advertising. Although that may change at some point, officials said, the memorials themselves would remain ad-free.

Funeral home directors said the Legacy.com site fills a need for families who always seem to be looking for new ways to use the Internet.

Charlotte Chism Waldrum, funeral director in charge at the Chism-Smith Funeral Home in Irving, said customers who are interested in genealogy have found the online memorials compelling. And a lot of people only learn about deaths weeks or months later, so the Legacy.com site offers them a resource to find information, she said.

"This is one of the greatest things that's come along for the families that we serve," said Oliver Lomax, owner of the Lomax Funeral Home in Dallas. "It's an everlasting tribute."

Like many small businesses, the Lomax Funeral Home, located on Scyene Road near Fair Park, doesn't yet have a Web site of its own. But Legacy.com provides the business with a simple page showing a photograph of the building and a neighborhood map.

Eventually, Mr. Lomax said, the Internet will probably revolutionize his industry, just as it is every other big businesses. One company, Funeralservices.com Ltd. of Cleveland, already allows customers to plan their own funerals online to spare their families the cost and effort and to have their wishes honored.

"People will start purchasing funerals, making arrangements over the Internet," Mr. Lomax said. "They'll want to know basic information about the funeral home. And people will probably be shopping around, looking for prices. As they begin to look for that, we'll need to meet their needs."

Mr. Lomax said he's ready to make the transition to the digital age, though ultimately he believes that his competitive advantage will come from offering quality service at a fair price.

"I'm a firm believer that if you take time to help people in their critical hour, to treat them with reverence and dignity, if you're affordable, they won't forget you."

Technology editor Alan Goldstein writes about the Internet and electronic commerce for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is agoldstein@dallasnews.com.
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