Like Baseball Cards, but for Funerals
Article originally appeared on The Atlantic
Funeral cards are reminders of loved ones who have passed away—but when the names on the cards belong to strangers, they’re also collectibles. An Object Lesson
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.
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.”