Nicholas’s Story

Nicholas V. Ille – Founder of US Funerals Online

The year was 1997, and I was between corporate sales and marketing jobs.  My mother was lecturing at Hull University in Northeast England and had recently bought her first Windows computer that connected to this thing called the World Wide Web. 

It was fascinating, to say the least, and after conducting a few searches search inquiries on the search engine Alta-Vista, I was hooked.  I knew immediately that this was going to change the world.

On my return to London the following week, I enrolled in a 12-week web page design course through a local college in Greenwich.  It was somewhat daunting to start, as I had never used computers in my life. 

I began to create simple web pages over the next few weeks and started offering my web design services to local small businesses.  I knew this was the future and that the business world would quickly adapt to this new media and marketing opportunity. 

I spent endless hours each week looking at how corporations were beginning to market their new websites and paid particular attention to the design aspect, which, looking back now, was extremely basic compared to today.

In the spring of 1998, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and sadly passed away only 6 months later.  It was my first experience of dealing with the death and bereavement of a close family member. 

My grandfather was recommended to a local funeral director named Francis Chappell & Sons in Lewisham, in East London.  No one in our family had ever had to deal with making funeral arrangements or any idea of the costs involved. 

It was an extremely distressing time in our lives.  After two meetings with the local funeral director, my grandfather elected for a church service followed by a cremation at the local crematorium.  Her ashes would then be taken to Zagreb, Croatia, to be interred in the family grave with her parents.

In the weeks that followed, I spent many evenings with my grandfather, listening to all the great times and adventures they had had together over 60 years of marriage.  During one of our evening chats, the subject of the funeral costs came up.  And I was totally shocked as my grandfather explained his experience of dealing with the local funeral home. 

He talked about feeling pressured to make decisions he was not ready to make but that they needed him to make them right now.  I was shocked to learn that the coffin/casket that was ordered cost £3,000. 

My grandfather explained that he originally selected the simple pine coffin that was described as ideal for a cremation.  Yet the staff member persuaded him that because there would be a church service beforehand, a more elaborate coffin would look better.  Even though it was 3 times the price. 

Again, he explained the feeling of being pressured and almost shamed into spending more money.  My grandparents were NOT wealthy people and had spent a lifetime together being frugal. 

The following day, I began to do a little research about the funeral director Francis Chappell & Sons and started to learn about the relatively unknown world of corporate funerals.  The funeral director my grandfather chose was not a local family business. It was part of a multi-national corporation, Service Corporation International (SCI), with a head office in Houston, Texas. 

Dealing with a funeral for the very first time is an extremely daunting task.  Most of us have no idea where to begin, with no idea of the costs involved or the different options that are available. 

Twenty-five years ago, there was very little information or guidance to help people during these extremely difficult times.  This was the moment in my life, a “calling” where the ideas began to flow, and the concept of a website portal to help people during one of the most difficult times in their lives was born. 

Over the next 6 months, I worked 18 hours a day building UK Funerals Online.  The plan was to design and build a “one-stop shop” to help families deal with a death in the family.  The site included a directory of every funeral business in the UK, together with articles written by bereavement councilors and other professionals within the funeral industry. 

I visited independently owned funeral homes (mom & pop) businesses and offered them exclusive advertising opportunities in their local areas. 

Over the next 3 years, the site became the number one site in the UK for funeral help and advice, and we had dozens of funeral directors onboard. 

In 2002, UK Funerals Online was featured on the ITV program The Web Review, and this firmly put us on the map.  Four months later, an independent funeral director with several branches in London contacted me with a view to buying the website, and a few weeks later the deal was done.

My upbringing involved several moves to different countries.  I was 37 years old and had grown up living in Canada, the US, and the UK, and I was starting to miss the business hustle.  Part of my deal when selling UK Funerals Online was that I signed a 10-year ‘non-compete agreement’ with the buyer. 

On a summer evening in Venice, Italy, a friend asked me why I didn’t look at setting something up in the United States.  It was really a “no-brainer,” and as the U.S. had a population of 5 times that of the UK, the potential was huge. 

A week later, we began planning the new site, US Funerals Online.  The website was launched in June 2003, and 20 years later is the number 1 funeral resource in the US, attracting 1500-2000 visitors per day.