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?

 

The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll
1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

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Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

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Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_mourning_dolls

Invoking the Owlman

 

The 1970s birthed not only teletext and space invaders, but also everyone’s favourite regional owl-beast. While the rest of the world were indeed playing ‘that funky music’, visitors to the Cornish village of Mawnan were preoccupied with the sighting of a nightmarish hooter.

On the night of April 17th 1976, two young sisters on a camping holiday with their parents found themselves by the 13th century church of St Mawnan and St Stephen. To their terror, above the bell tower, appeared a huge owl “with pointed ears as big as a man”, glowing eyes and black, pincer-like claws. The girls were so shaken by this feathered vision that their father packed up their bags and abruptly put an end to their holiday.

Thus, the Owlman of Mawnan began his reign of terror. Ish.

The image of the Cornish Owlman gripped tabloids and eccentric occultists alike, with sporadic sightings of the beast continuing well into the early 80s. However, most, if not all, information pertaining to this gripping tale of regional terror came from one man; self-styled ‘wizard’ and ‘paranormal researcher’, Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.

Shiels is an interesting and incredibly lucky (ahem) researcher. In the 1970s alone, Shiels claimed to have personal one-to-one chats with a plethora of magical creatures and was fortunate enough to catch Nessie on film on the second day of his visit. It appears Shiels was a man of many talents, operating as a professional entertainer, artist, poet, playwright and prolific writer. Again, in 1976, ‘The Shiels Effect’ was one of his plethora of publications; this one concerning how to hoax UFO and paranormal effects.  He also penned several works on conjuring and stage magic – alongside his more recent efforts of an autobiography, ‘Monstrum! A Wizard’s Tale’, published in 2011. He’s a divisive character, with Magonia Magazine reporting that Shiels purchased his doctorate ‘in the USA for $5’

But Shiels was not simply a reporter within the Owlman legend. As with many other obscure and mystical monsters of the 70s, he was fortunate to come into contact with the beast itself. After his brush with the young campers, the Owlman revealed himself to Shiels, recounted stories and disappeared into the ether.

Shiels continued to document his Owlman experiences in a series of interviews and investigations following the initial bell tower sighting. The sisters – later identified as June and Vicky Melling – produced sketches, which were then re-interpreted by Shiel’s artistic hand. The originals, as with much evidence relating to cryptozoology, are nowhere to be found.  Later, Jonathan Downes, the Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (‘The world’s largest mystery animal research group’) furthered research into the Owlman, interviewing several eyewitnesses and increasing the documentation of reported sightings. His work ‘The Owlman and Others’ includes further ‘eyewitness’ descriptions of the Owlman, all similarly dramatic. A later duo of witnesses described the beast as ‘horrible, a nasty owl-face with big ears and big red eyes. It was covered in grey feathers. The claws on its feet were black. It just flew up and disappeared in the trees.’

Regardless of Downes research and his commitment to the Owlman brand, it is understandable how the majority of people – those who did not dismiss the sightings as fraudulent from day one – believe the Owlman to be simply…an owl.

The most common dismissal of ‘Owlman’ is that the huge bird in question was a Giant Eagle Owl. The solution of Barn owls has been thrown around for some time, but considering the average wingspan is around 80-95 cms with no recorded giant examples, they remain in the clear. However, Giant Eagle Owls are essentially flying toddlers, with an average wingspan of 138-170cms. The largest individuals weigh in at around 6 ½ pounds, making them one of the the heaviest owls in the world. While not in possession of glowing eyes, they are suitably scary animals with Birds Britannica stating that they combine the power of ‘a real eagle with the terrifying impact of an owl’s nocturnal strike.’

While not native to the UK, Eagle Owls have been kept as far back as the 1600s and all sightings and current breeding pairs are as a result of escaped pets. They remain popular within the UK, with Birds Britannica quipping that they are currently ‘as common on housing estates as rottweilers.’ On average, 60-70 eagle owls are lost annually with two-thirds not being recaptured.

Whether you believe events at Mawnan can be dismissed as a simple hoax and an owl-less night, the Eagle Owl theory remains popular with debunkers. Despite the proliferation of these ginormous owls into the populous, they remain decidedly owl-sized and are not currently threatening camping trips or family life.

To my knowledge, at least.

 

 

Further Reading:

Owls, Mike Toms. Collins New Naturalist. Harper Collins. 2014

Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey. Chatto & Windus, 2005

The Owlman and Others (30th Anniversary Expanded Edition), Jonathan Downes. Cfz. 2006.

http://magoniamagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/monstrous-tales.html

http://www.paranormal-encounters.com

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