In one shady corner of YouTube, users are uploading videos of themselves summarizing the obituaries of strangers, sometimes fabricating details about their deaths. They’re known as “obituary pirates.”
This practice drives video views and ad revenue, according to Wired, potentially creating profit off of the curiosity and concern of people seeking more information about a loved one’s death.
How do obituary pirates work?
Obituary pirates use search engine optimization (SEO) to intercept people looking for information about someone who has died, be that an explanation of what happened to them or instructions on how to send a gift to the family.
The concept isn’t new. It originated when internet users copied obituaries from websites like Legacy.com and republished the text elsewhere to profit from ad revenue. It has now just moved to YouTube. Though past text pirates were accused of plagiarism for literally copying and pasting full obituaries, YouTubers are just summarizing them, so they’re able to dodge potential legal hurdles.
These pirated YouTube obituaries sometimes contain misinformation, according to the New York Times. In the case of Matteo Sachman, 19, who died in a subway accident, the videos contained errors about his age, hometown and cause of death.
Faisal Shah Khan, an internet marketer in India, told the New York Times that he regularly monitors search data on the Google Trends website for words like “obituary,” “accident” and “death.” Based on related searches, he was able to piece together basic information about Sachman, including how he died. Khan used an artificial intelligence tool to create a blog post, which is now generating income for him, though not very much — according to the New York Times, one such post would generate a couple of cents per month.
Though the obituary for Sachman on Khan’s blog was technically accurate, it only contained a few specific details. Just minutes later, it was picked up by obituary pirates on YouTube who recited the information on that blog, adding misinformation to embellish their coverage.
Why obituary pirates are harmful
Jessica Koth, director of public relations for the National Funeral Directors Association, told Wired that the 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,” she added.
Some YouTube channels upload dozens of pirated obituary summaries every hour, generating as much content as possible for maximum revenue. As a result, the delivery of potentially heartbreaking information can sound emotionless and rushed. The visuals are sloppy, often shakily recorded in public or in dimly lit rooms.
The Bereavement Authority of Ontario issued a warning about a potential scam in which pirate websites solicit donations in honor of the deceased but pocket the money. Sometimes video descriptions of pirated obituaries contain affiliate links and advertisements.
Chris Silver Smith, a digital marketing consultant whose brother-in-law died in a car accident in September 2023, told the New York Times that the practice of obituary pirating is “horrific and disturbing because it’s so predatory.”
Obituary pirates utilize digital marketing tactics, sometimes including misinformation and plagiarism, to generate revenue from the grief and curiosity of people learning about the death of a loved one.
What’s being done about obituary pirates?
Ads powered by Google appear both on websites and in YouTube videos created by obituary pirates, generating revenue for creators as well as the tech giant. A Google spokesperson told the New York Times that the company is aware of the flood of low-quality obituaries that sometimes appear when a person dies and is looking into ways to address it.
“We understand how distressing this content can be, and we’re working to launch updates that will significantly improve search results for queries like these,” the Google spokesperson wrote.
The search engine company shared plans to reduce the mention of people who are not well known on Google Trends. It already penalizes AI-automated content that’s created mainly for “manipulating ranking in search results” and instead prioritizes content that demonstrates “expertise, experience, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.”