MEMORIAL CARDS: Documents of History
by Lesley-Anne McLeod


At first it may seem a macabre collectible.  But the memorial card, evidence and reminder of a death, is a fascinating record of history and manners.  These cards are still in use, but those of the Victorian era are of particular interest.  Full of symbolism and sentiment, they reveal the character of an age.

In the years of Victoria's reign, black kid gloves were given to all who attended a funeral.  Memorial cards originated to accompany the gloves in the post to friends and relations unable to attend the funeral.  Eventually the cards themselves became a major memorial.  Some were very large and elaborate, and included cut paper work or original art work; they were intended for framing and hanging.

More often however, the cards were a smaller, standard sizeabout 3" by 4 1/2".  They were of heavy card stock, usually bordered and printed in black.  Simplicity was not the norm; cards were usually intricately embossed in a wide variety of designs. All the designs contained symbolic elements.  The plants were evergreen; ivy indicated undying affection, the yew was a symbol of immortality.  The weeping willow spoke of sorrow.  Angels showed divinity, a serpent swallowing its tail, eternity.  The anchor was a symbol of faith, and a broken column indicated a violent or premature death.  The column was often used in a memorial for a soldier.

Wording was only occasionally simple.  The words "In Affectionate Remembrance" or "Sacred to the Memory of" began most cards.  More often Bible verses or poetic excerpts were included and offered artless hopes and comforting thoughts.  But some cards contain additional statements which present intriguing historical detail and topics for further research.  One such English card memorializes Mr. James Braidwood "Superintendent of the London Fire Brigade, Who lost his life at the Great Fire in Tooley Street, June 22, 1861".  The Great Fire was very large indeedMr. Braidwood was posthumously hailed as a hero, and his funeral was a model of Victorian extravagance.  Another card recalls the age of sail as it mourns "Norman Douglas... whose death was occasioned by a fall from the mizen top-sail yard on board the "Rajpoot", off the Cape of Good Hope, on the Twenty-third day of May, 1870, in the eighteenth year of his age."

Too often the cards memorialize children and infants.  There is a lingering sadness in the reminders of the high mortality rate.  "William Frederick ... who departed this life ... in the Fifth Year of his Age."  "James Dalton ... who departed this life ... peaceful and happy,looking to Jesus ... aged 9 years and 4 months."  "Henry Heath, infant son ... Who departed this life September 14th, 1868, Aged 7 months."  Young adults were also vulnerable.  "Sarah Elizabeth ... who died ... October 20th, 1860. Aged 20."  "George Henry, Who through suffering and tribulation, Entered into Rest June 13th, 1876, Aged 28 Years."  Less tragic are those expected cards of the elderly.  "Ann, Who fell Asleep in Jesus, August 13th, 1868, Aged 76 Years."

Large and elaborate memorial cards are more readily available than the simpler varieties which have been discarded by recent generations.  Framed, cut-work examples of this funerary art can cost as much as $100.00 in antique shops.  The collector of the smaller cards must be vigilant as they are easily overlooked.  Old scrapbooks are a valuable source for them as are boxes of papers and photographs in attics and antiques stores.

The Victorians knew very well that life was fragile.  Most families lost at least one child in infancy or childhood.  The elderly lived and died in the family home.  The reality of death was ever-present, in a way that it is not in our world.  Because death was a part of life, etiquette and ritual existed to ease its place in the daily round.  Funerals were elaborate; white for the young, black for those of mature years.  Plumed horses and deaf-mute mourners supplied by the undertaker were all part of the display. 

Mourning clothes were worn for a rigidly prescribed period, and an entire industry revolved around their manufacture, Crape adorned the homes of the bereaved.  Memorials for the dead took many forms.  There were ceramics and jewelry, novelties contrived of the hair of the dear departed, and hand-stitched samplers.  Small paper cards are among the most interesting of those memorials.

© Lesley-Anne McLeod 1988
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