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Playing the Funeral Card



It’s remarkable what you can find in charity shops. I can remember picking a book off the shelf and discovering that it was a Bible in Latin. It was printed beautifully on soft paper and as I leafed through it I found a little card tucked into its pages. On one side of the card was a colourful picture of the Virgin Mary; on the other was a request in English to pray for the soul of a departed person.

This was the first time I’d seen something that is very common in Catholic cultures: a funeral card, or card printed to celebrate a holy figure and preserve the memory of someone who has passed away. They date back hundreds of years, right back to the invention of the printing press, but they first became popular when it became possible to print easily in colour. That was in the early nineteenth century and after that funeral cards were a big source of income for printers in Catholic countries like France, Spain and Ireland.

Like the card I saw, funeral cards typically have a picture of a holy figure on one side and details of the departed person on the other. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are obvious choices for the picture, but Catholicism offers many more. The Virgin Mary has appeared in many different forms to the faithful, like Our Lady of Lourdes in France or Our Lady of Knock in Ireland, and there is an even longer list of Catholic saints, famous or obscure, to choose from.

“Choice” and “choose” are important words here. Although some funeral cards are generic, it’s often the case that the family of the departed will have a specific preference when they order the cards from a printer or requested cards from a Catholic funeral director. Perhaps the departed person will have discussed the topic with them during life. In Catholicism, people often have a favourite saint, one who has answered an important prayer or helped them through a difficult time in life. There are saints who watch over members of every job and profession, from sailors and firemen to nurses and printers. And funeral directors: their patron saint is Joseph of Arimathea.

But funeral cards aren’t just used for commemoration: they’re also very helpful to historians who want to study changes in culture down the years. Before the middle of the twentieth century, for example, pictures of Christ suffering on the cross were popular on funeral cards. Then they began to be replaced by pictures of Christ as a child or of his resurrection, as he rose in glory from the tomb. It’s interesting to speculate on why this change took place, but one thing is obvious: people were making different choices, turning away from tradition to meet different preferences and psychological needs.

Something else that changed on funeral cards, particularly in the United States, is that they began to include not just the details   of the departed person, but also of the funeral business that had buried them. In other words, funeral cards had become a way of advertising a funeral business. This is another way that Western culture has changed: businesses have become more competitive and looked for new ways to get their names before the public.

These changes are far from over. A wider range of choices is something that consumers increasingly want in their lives and the coming of the internet age means that businesses are competing and advertising their services in more and more ways. And the internet has, in a way, taken on the role of funeral cards. Nowadays we commemorate our departed loved ones on web-pages. We can light a candle for them on-line.

But the rule of funeral directors doesn’t change. Whether they’re helping a grieving Catholic family or a grieving secular one, funeral directors are there to offer advice and provide the service that the family wants.

National Federation of Funeral Directors