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
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
“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