Funerals Gone Online -

EFUNERAL.JPGWith, Mike Belsito, front, and Bryan Chaikin hope to change the way we pick a funeral home. They're launching their Internet-based company from offices high above Cleveland's PlayhouseSquare.
Mike Belsito first immersed himself in the business of death a year and a half ago, when a cousin died unexpectedly.
As the family absorbed the news, Belsito's father asked him if he could go online and find out how best to make funeral arrangements in Parma. The Internet savvy 30-year-old, who rarely goes out to dinner without consulting, envisioned a web-based trove of information.
Instead, he said, he came back to his family with little more than a general listing of area funeral homes.
"As important of a life decision as it was, and for the money we spent, it bothered me that we just sort of picked one," Belsito said.
From that sense of inadequacy emerged eFuneral, an online funeral planning service that Belsito and his partner, 34-year-old Bryan Chaikin, expect to launch today.
The pair think they have a potent idea for tapping into the $15 billion death care industry and investors agree. The Cleveland start-up has attracted an impressive $400,000 in initial funding. Meanwhile, it's sending a buzz through the area's constellation of funeral homes, as many funeral directors suspect it could change the way they do business.
Belsito and Chaikin aim to build a subscriber base of funeral homes and use it to offer families information tailored to their needs, including price quotes and consumer reviews. Instead of picking a funeral home by guesswork or tradition, they say, families will be armed with proposals from four or five different local funeral homes, as well as rates for a service that often costs more than $6,000.
The website will be free for users. Funeral homes that subscribe will be charged a fee for each client sent their way. Already, about a dozen area funeral homes have joined the network, Belsito said.
"The idea is to help families make decisions, and connect them to the right funeral director," he said.
That heralds a new force in an industry built on family tradition and often ethnic allegiance. But Marcella Boyd Cox, whose grandfather founded E.F. Boyd & Sons in 1905, thinks her trade is ready for Internet shopping.
Boyd Cox, president of the Cleveland African American Funeral Directors Association, was one of the first people Belsito contacted for help in shaping the idea.
"It's an Angie's List of funeral homes to me," she said, referring to the Internet-based company that compiles consumer reviews of plumbers, house cleaners and other service providers. "I think it gives us a chance to get in front of people who may not consider us."
While the founders claim a niche, they will be entering a busy arena. Internet-based companies like already offer instructions for arranging funerals. So do the websites of many hospices and nursing homes.
Investors say eFuneral will be distinguished by its ability to offer price quotes and reviews, which the founders promise to verify.
"Before this, you couldn't find this level of service," said local venture capitalist Doug Weintraub, who leads an investment team that includes Hatch Partners and the Innovation Fund of Northeast Ohio.
Weintraub said he sees eFuneral filling a need in an increasingly mobile society, one where people are less likely to know a local funeral home. He said he's equally impressed by the young adults behind it.
Belsito was the first employee at Findaway World, a Cleveland start-up that created the Playaway audiobook and that now employs about 125 people in Solon. Chaikin, also an early Findaway employee, joined him on the product innovation team, in an office where the pair plotted eFuneral.
The idea earned them a slot in this past summer's inaugural class of 10-xelerator, a state-sponsored boot camp for young entrepreneurs in Columbus, where they met Weintraub and other mentors. They quit their jobs in June and worked toward this day.
With the website live, the founders hope to test and refine their product in Northeast Ohio before taking it national. They recently hired two full-time employees, giving eFuneral a workforce of four atop the 22-story Keith Building in Playhouse Square.
Belsito envisions a staff of 50 to 60 serving a nationwide clientele. To fulfill that dream, he knows, eFuneral must prove it can ease an experience that all face eventually, and help the living afford a beautiful goodbye.


Popular Posts