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.
Funeral cards just one of many types of so-called “holy cards” that Catholics have produced, sold, and collected for hundreds of years. Since the 15th century, holy cards have served as portable objects of devotion, just as loving parents may tuck snapshots of their children into their wallets. The oldest surviving holy card is said to be a 1423 woodcut print from Germany depicting the 3rd-century martyr Saint Christopher, but the practice of using holy cards specifically as funeral memorabilia is newer, likely dating back to the Netherlands in the 1700s. With the development of workable lithography in the early 1800s, holy cards became big business for European printers, and their use as tools of folk worship and as commemorative souvenirs spread through Catholic communities across the globe.
As the volume and reach of printed cards grew, their imagery became more varied. The list of officially recognized saints swells to more than 10,000, and despite extensive catalogs like the Catholic Church’s Martyrologium Romanum, no comprehensive list exists. With such a rich roster of approved saints, it’s little wonder that some older Catholics speak of swapping holy cards as if they were baseball cards. The 1986 humor book More Growing Up Catholic recalls how Catholic children would trade cards freely: “Hey Bobby, give you a Saint Jude for a Francis the Sissy and a Saint Peter.”
While the authors decry this practice with some mock-sanctimonious tut-tutting, the sheer number of extant holy cards certainly make them highly collectible. The University of Dayton’s Marian Library claims nearly 100,000 greeting cards, postcards, and holy cards depicting Mary in her various incarnations, while the Ireland Library of the University of St. Thomas has maintained an incidental collection of “holy cards that have been found in returned books.” Father Eugene Carrella, a pastor in Staten Island, NY, has collected around 3,000 holy cards covering some 2,000 different saints and other beatified figures, including some funeral cards.
The popularity of holy cards began to wane with the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965, whose attempts to “modernize” the Catholic Church included reforms like celebrating Mass in local languages rather than in Latin and allowing nuns to wear everyday clothing. The 1969 revision of General Roman Calendar, the official roster of Church feast days, removed several major saints from general celebration—including Saint Christopher, the subject of the earliest known holy card. More obscure characters like the legendary “bearded lady” Saint Wilgefortis were also unceremoniously dropped from the calendar. In the decades since, holy cards have been all but relegated to funeral souvenirs and collectible ephemera.
Visiting a local flea market recently, I was surprised to find funeral cards scattered amongst loose baseball cards, vintage photographs, and foreign currency in disorganized bins. Digging closely through one of them, I discovered that several of them, similar in appearance, also bore the same surname. I rifled through the pile until I found all of them, assembling the lopped-off branches of a family tree of strangers, carefully discarding duplicate cards in a separate pile. But then, embarrassed by my flea-market genealogy, and lacking the $6.50 in cash required to purchase the set, I left them for other relic hunters. Later, asking around at a few other stalls at the flea market, I discovered that many vendors had funeral cards for sale, almost all of strangers.
Used bookstores and flea markets aren’t the only place to find the second- and third-hand treasures of strangers; you can also find them in online marketplaces like eBay and Etsy. Some sellers enthusiastically promote older cards as objects of vintage beauty, while others market newer specimens as ideal for crafting and scrapbooking. There is a great aesthetic disparity between early 20th-century cards, which were printed in black on thick cardboard with silver leaf embellishments, and cards from the late 1950s and onward, printed in full color on thinner paper. It is perhaps no coincidence that the mid-1950s mark the beginning of the direct advertisement of funeral homes on the cards themselves.
Along with the quality of paper and printing, the imagery on the cards also has changed. The earliest cards in my collection showcase images of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross, or else tending to his dying stepfather Saint Joseph. Later cards show Christ’s glorious Technicolor resurrection, or the uncanny Christ child instructing the masses. Just as the verb “die” has been euphemized into “pass,” so did funeral cards begin to replace death’s meaner aspects with images of heavenly triumph.
Once I buy my funeral cards from the used bookstore, I realize that I don’t actually know what to do with them. I feel uneasy about storing these unfamiliar cards alongside those of deceased friends and family, as if somehow the presence of these interlopers makes the deaths of people I knew less meaningful. In bulk, these cards and their mass-produced similarities make their subjects’ legacies appear interchangeable. But looking closely at the cards I’ve collected over the years of people I know, I find that many of them bear meaningful similarities. The card for my dead high-school friend, for example, has the same poem as that of an aunt’s brother-in-law: Mary Elizabeth Frye’s “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” The cards for my maternal grandmother and for my family friend’s mother also share the same exact text: Helen Lowrie Marshall’s “Afterglow.”
In duplicate, these secular verses may smack of generic Hallmark sentiment. Even so, that doesn’t devalue the impact they might have on mourners who encounter them just before they see their loved ones for the last time. I can’t help but think of how my own legacy might be reduced to a small piece of paper, and wonder who will survive me to keepsake those cards, assuming any are even commissioned.
I hope they are, though. The vast majority of the humans who have lived on this earth have left no unique trace behind. Funeral cards offer some small salve, reminding us that even as our bodies eventually decompose into their basic components and disappear back into the planet, some among us will continue to exist—even if as tradable abstractions.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.