In Praise of Death Stationery

In western cultures, after a death, we are often informed by social media or through a text or phone call. For the common man, there’s no need for printed invites and those attending the service often know of time and place from similar means. As far as printed ephemera goes, most organised funerals present attendees with an order of service; hymns, poems, prayers and the like, alongside the name and photograph of the deceased. If you’re particularly unlucky, they might include a questionable poem written by a family member in dodgy rhyming couplets. But how many of us have retained these pamphlets throughout our grief?

Printed invites are for weddings and birthdays. They’re obtained in bulk from private printing companies that print twee family canvas pictures and promotional booklets alongside your booklet of grief. We use images and choose words carefully; most are desperately personal. And they end up left behind or in the bin.

But for our ancestors, funeral invitations and memorial cards were a keepsake in themselves. They were retained after the funeral, kept in books, boxes and between the pages of family bibles. However, to the contemporary death-historian or morbidly-minded hoarder, they’re a staple piece of a collection that snowballs.

The funeral itself is historically the most important part of western death rituals, and invitations and memorial keepsakes have been an extension of this.  While memorial or so-called ‘funeral cards’ are most associated with the 19thand early 20thcentury, there are beautifully elaborate examples dating back to the 17thand 18thcenturies. These cards were most commonly used as funeral invitations and are among the rarer and most attractive of death-associated collectables.

Many early examples were engraved in wood with a surround incorporating traditional reminders of mortality; skeletons, crossed bones, hour-glasses etc. Families with even greater wealth could choose to commission far larger invitations from copper.

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19th Century Memorial Card [Personal Collection]
By the Victorian age, fashions had changed from direct invitations to a funeral to small memorial cards which provided basic details as to the name of the deceased and the date of forthcoming funeral.

From the 1840s to approximately the 1870s, cards became hugely elaborate works of art in pierced paper and (still!) sometimes wood. In the world of Victorian death ephemera, it is through these that the Victorian obsession with funerary symbolism is easiest to recognise.

Memorial cards were often one of the first indicators of grief and one of the last reminders, subsequently, there were innumerable design options on offer. In early, costly cards, some might feature a plethora of symbols; broken columns, urns, weeping angels, and broken flowers – all of which carry their own symbolic meaning relating to death, grief and the afterlife.

By the turn of the century, and the advent of the industrial revolution (and subsequent development in printing methods), the public began to favour a smaller folding card that was lithographed with a singular simple image, such as lilies, crosses or a short bible verse, often with glimpses of silver and grey.

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19th Century Memorial Card with Undertaker’s Details [via The Cowkeeper’s Wish]
These more basic cards were easily obtained from several sources. Set designs could be ordered from a book, much like an Avon catalogue of misery. They could also be bought from the funeral directors themselves. In obtaining them from this source, they could be supplied for cut price or free, if the funeral director was able to advertise his services at the bottom of the card.

Funeral invitations for prominent and wealthy individuals often operated as tickets, as though the funeral was some exclusive concert. These often stated the requirement to ‘bring the ticket’ to the funeral to avoid overcrowding.

Public funerals of royalty or statesmen were obviously different affairs; funeral cards were specifically designed as keepsakes and backed for framing, but were also produced in several class tiers. For example, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 had twelve levels of admission; officials, important statesmen and family had engraved tickets sealed in black wax, whereas, at the other end of the scale, the public – at least those who were able to afford a ticket to the event – found their card to be a plain printed affair.

Funeral ephemera relating to such big deaths was also mass produced as public souvenirs. Alongside official invitations to the event, handkerchiefs, pins and facsimile postcards were widely circulated as accessible keepsakes.

While decoration began to simplify towards the end of the century, the common thread in mourning stationery continued to be the feature of a black border framing a white background. This black border was carried throughout all mourning stationery, and is frequently used today.

While mourning cards and stationery may not appear to be the most exciting of mourning practises, it shows how much of an enormous business grieving was.

 

In sending a death notice through the post, the black edging would be prominent, meaning the nature of the letter that landed on your mat was very clear. Similarly, when writing any letters within the period of mourning, your situation was immediately visible through your usage of such a simplistic border. These borders, much like wider Victorian mourning regulations, changed in size and density depending on the immediacy of the death. In a letter to the Royal Academy from the son of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a thick border is visible, showing that the death affecting him has been recent. Over time, these correspondences would sport a smaller border, until eventually, the family could return to their previous letterheads.

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As the 20thcentury thundered into the 21st, these smaller cards retained a sense of simplicity, but grew somewhat, leaving us with the pamphlets we’re so used to in contemporary grief. It could be tempting to assume that pamphlets will soon go the way of the mourning card, being replaced by some technological alternative. However, considering we live in an increasingly ‘emotionally open’ society, perhaps the draw of a delicate keepsake will return us to a world of pierced paper urns and black borders. Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of new stationery?

 

Cemetery Festivities in Finland

 

As ‘Burials and Beyond’ is first and foremost, a personal blog, I hope you’ll indulge me as I recount my recent experiences in Finland, remembering the dead at Christmas-time.

 

On Christmas Day 2017, I found myself not at home with my family, but around 1000 miles away in Helsinki, Finland. It is a long-standing tradition among Finns to visit cemeteries around the Christmas period and I for one was more than happy to take part.

The majority of Finnish families (reports quote as many as three quarters) visit the graves of loved ones on Christmas Eve, leaving candles and paying their respects to their dead loved ones. This was our original plan.

I would love to say that my friends and I joined the crowds on Christmas Eve, but owing to a mutual hatred of crowds and an adoration of mulled wine, we waited until the 25th to make our trip to neighbouring Espoo. Besides, Christmas Eve was already filled with a huge meal, festive drinks, a trip to the sauna with a festive cider… not to mention the arrival of Joulupukki (Santa Claus), so we were more than a little strapped for both time and sobriety.

 

However, on Xmas day itself – a day usually reserved for visiting family and recovering from the previous day’s frivolities – we hopped on a bus and began the short journey to neighbouring Espoo. It should be said that I had been spending the festive period in the company of two Finns, both of whom had loved ones buried in the same cemetery, making our journey not simply a tourist exercise, but a personal and purposeful one.

After leaving the bus, armed with backpacks filled with knitwear and candles, we made our way through the snow towards Kappelin hautausmaa (The Espoo Chapel Cemetery). There could be no mistaking as to where the cemetery lay; as we walked the curving roads towards the gates, the warm glow of thousands of candles cast unmistakable shadows across the trees. The whole scene would have been decidedly dramatic and gothic, were it not for my propensity for sudden, sprawling meetings with the ice underfoot.

 

We entered the cemetery around 5pm in pitch darkness (such is Finnish weather), and I was unsure as to who, if anyone, we would encounter in our wanderings. While I obviously can’t comment on the experiences or intentions of all visitors at this time, the atmosphere of the cemetery was not especially sombre. As we made our way down the snowy tracks, we encountered several families with children in tow, some chasing toddlers, some talking intently with one another. There was certainly no hard-kept silence, rather pockets of visitors going about their business in whatever way they saw fit. There was a distinct sensation of individual purpose during our visit – each visitor interacting with no one outside of their group, quickly tending to their own specific plot among a multitude of identical headstones. Far more families than I anticipated were taking time out of their celebrations to visit the cemetery, making such a tradition seem somewhat ageless and very much active, rather than some dying (pardon the pun) practise. As Finns make visits to their living family around the Christmas period, it was evident that those who have died are not neglected.

 

The prevalence of the practise is evident all throughout the lead up to Christmas, most notably through supermarket shelves. Homeware sections, from supermarkets to corner shops, have their space dedicated to a variety of grave candles, from elaborate glass affairs with angels and metal hearts to multipacks of candles in plastic tubes. The latter, plastic-tubed, traditional grave candle was very much the popular ‘standard’ choice across cemeteries. Despite contemporary connotations of candles with Christian practise and remembrance, the Finnish tradition taking candles to graves across ‘Christmas time’ is not an exclusively Christian act, but is practised across all faiths. Many pre-Christian belief systems held ideas that the souls of the dead were closest to the living around the time of the winter solstice.

While no-one is able to pinpoint the origin of their use in cemeteries, the popularity of grave candles in Finland appears to track back to the 1920s. At this time, candles had become more affordable to the masses and, following the Finnish Civil War, were placed on the graves of soldiers.

 

This Finnish relationship with death, or memorialisation to be more precise, appears to be a far more accepting and active one compared to that of the UK.

A 2015 report by Perfect Choice Funeral Plans claimed that ‘half of Britons do not visit their deceased relatives’ resting place.’ Reasons cited ranged from ‘lost track of time’ to ‘too upsetting’, yet the outcome is the same. Ultimately, with or without a central family focus on the deceased, upkeep ultimately passes over to local authorities and similar organisations to maintain the environment around them. Most cemeteries within the UK do not employ the practise of re-using grave plots after a set amount of years, as it continues to spark outrage within certain communities, with buzzwords such as ‘desecration’ and ‘grave robbers’ scattered with wild abandon (see links below).

As Kappelin hautausmaa was not a historical cemetery, the practise of re-using plots is widely employed. Subsequently, most headstones were decidedly uniform, being simple and squat in appearance. In Finland, plots are not owned, but ‘rented’ for 25 years, after which the family may renew their lease for a further 25 years. Depending on the cemetery and age of the plot, families may opt to include multiple burials within their 25 years, as there is often space for multiple embalmed bodies and cremated remains (as is most popular in Finland, with FuneralBusinessAdvisor quoting an ‘85% cremation rate’). As turnover is high, there are regulations in place in terms of headstones and there were few artistically remarkable memorials within the cemetery. This is not to say that the simplicity of family plots to be without merit; it is within the simplicity of the lone family name that I personally felt most potency.

 

As I watched my friends kneel and balance flickering candles against the impacted snow, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of this communal relationship with death. My trip to Espoo was indeed a great visual experience, but more importantly, enlightening. I found that, even if it occurs just once a year, a community – however scattered – can interact with death in such an easy, simplistic, positive, way.

 

 

http://www.nevillefuneralservice.com/files/3014/3038/7260/Half_of_Brits_do_not_regularly_visit_family_graves.pdf

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/06/re-using-graves-means-uk-cemetery-will-never-run-out-of-space

 

http://www.customsofchristmas.com/finland.html