The History of Funeral Cards

A German holy card from around 1910 depicts the Crucifixion.

A German holy card from around 1910 depicts the Crucifixion.

If you attended a funeral, you may have received a card – similar to a bookmark or the size of a playing card – that commemorated the deceased. Although these cards became popular in the 1880s, today they most often are issued by a funeral home or church. You may be surprised, however, that the history of these cards dates back to the invention of lithography in the 1700s, when the Catholic Church began to print and issue Holy Cards.

Holy Cards typically depicted a religious scene, such as the one shown here, or a saint in an image about the size of a playing card or a collectible baseball card. On the reverse side of the image, a prayer with a promise of a indulgence for the recitation of the prayer was printed. Some Holy Card later were embellished with lace surrounding the borders, and they were known as dévotes dentelles by the French. The cards known as dévotes dentelles or Andachtsbilden (German origin) were carefully crafted of paper or parchment with paper cuts of saints, borders, and the like.

Lithography allowed a wider circulation of these Holy Cards, and the reach was broadened by card especially made for distribution at funerals. These funeral cards were known as “memorial cards” and carried details of the deceased with a photograph as well as prayers printed on the reverse side. By the end of the nineteenth century, Protestants began to print their own images, known as Bible Cards or Sunday school cards with images of Bible stories and parables, modern scenes of religious life and a printed sermonette instead of a prayer. Not to be left behind, the Protestants also began to print funeral cards for their deceased.

These card usually were mass-produced until the 1920s. According to Jay Ruby in Secure the Shadows: Death and Photography in America, the companies that manufactured and printed these cards all altered their mass-production to single-user production to expand their businesses. This quote, from Your Guide to Cemetery Research, state:

[H.F. Wendell and Company, for instance,] would pay a penny an obituary to women from all over the United States who would collect the notices from local newspapers and mail them to him. The women were recruited with small ads in dozens of small-town newspapers. Based on the information obtained from the obituary, a card would be printed on speculation and sent with a catalog and other promotional material.

Today’s funeral cards come in a variety of formats. In most instances, the card will contain the name and vital statistics of the deceased and may contain a photograph. In other cases, the cards are “memorial obituaries,” where the obituary is clipped from the paper and encased in plastic.

You can find fascinating collections of Holy Cards and funeral cards online, such as the one offered by Hrynkiw Genealogy. Modern funeral cards are offered by various companies as well, including those produced by MoMorial Cards or Remembrance Cards.

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