In a used bookstore in Philadelphia, I paid eight dollars for a collection of dead people.
Of course, bookstores generally do not deal in cadavers. But they do sell objects imbued with history: a former owner’s ex libris, an inscribed dedication from an unknown well-wisher, an occasional sales receipt used as a bookmark. What I bought was a small pleather portfolio stuffed with 18 funeral cards—Catholic-inspired memento mori for people I had never met, dating from 1919 to 1962.
This was far from an impulse buy: I had, in fact, come to this particular store specifically to ask if they’d ever sold funeral cards. By sheer serendipity, the owner informed me that only a few days prior, someone had traded in this collection, along with a Bible and a few prayer books. I felt a little morbid putting a dollar figure on a collection of deceased people, but the proprietor was more than willing to make the sale; funeral cards, he told me, are often part of estate sales at his shop.
On the surface, funeral cards look like Catholic trading cards, adorned with religious figures like Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a popular saint. On the backs of these 4.25-by-2.5 inch cards—underneath the sincere but stock phrase “In Loving Memory of”—are the names of the deceased, their birth and death dates, and brief prayers or poems. The lure of memorial cards extends beyond a morbid fascination with death.
Obviously, these highly customized items are not normally available for purchase. They are, however, a ubiquitous feature of Roman Catholic funerary customs, and generally provided by funeral homes at memorial services and wakes. Funeral homes leave stacks of these complimentary cards near the entrance of their parlors, often near the guestbooks. Modern funeral cards additionally serve as slightly shameless but efficient business cards, since they tend to display the name of the mortuary where the services were held.