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Funeral Cards

A recent discovery among old family papers has inspired this week's thoughts on how the ephemera of death and mourning, such as funeral cards, can help with family history research.

Last week, my father was looking through some old documents belonging to my grandmother (and her mother before her) when he came across an envelope of 12 medium-sized cards dating from 1881 to 1941. On closer examination, he realized they were memorial cards for some of our distant relatives.

More commonly known as "funeral cards", memorial cards are still used today but became popular in the late 19th century. In Ireland, they are sometimes referred to as "mortuary cards" or "remembrance cards". At the time of bereavement, mourners would send the cards to distant family members, friends and neighbours announcing the death and giving details of the funeral. The cards would then be kept in remembrance of the deceased.

On the left side of each folded black-rimmed card is written a verse, and on the right are details of the deceased individual, along with basic information about his or her funeral. These details usually include name, age, date of death, and the name of the burial ground. The number of the plot, the name and address of the undertaker, and the funeral date may also feature.

Funeral card in memory of Frederick Orchard Brown
One funeral card was printed in memory of a "beloved Dad, Frederick Orchard Brown" who died on the 1st December 1912. On the left side of the card (pictured above) a verse reads:

A sudden loss, a shock severe
To part with him we loved so dear ; 
Our loss is great, we'll not complain,
But trust in Christ to meet again.

"PEACE, PERFECT PEACE."

The verses on funeral cards tend towards the sentimental, and you may find the lines repeated on the individual's headstone. They were common epitaphs, often chosen from a list supplied by the undertaker. Some verses are still used by undertakers, cemeteries and crematoriums today. On first glance, the verses seem simplistic, but they are worth closer examination as they often contain clues to the nature of the death and an insight into the personality of the deceased. From the example above, we discover that Frederick Brown died unexpectedly. Perhaps this is not surprising as he was only 56, but this knowledge could encourage the curious genealogist to find out more through a death certificate or possibly a newspaper article.


Entry in Manor Park Cemetery burial register for Frederick Orchard Brown in December 1912
 Using the name and date details on the card, and learning that Frederick was buried in East London's Manor Park Cemetery, I was able to search for his burial record in the Deceased Online database. The record (pictured above) adds to the details on the funeral card. The burial register entry reveals that Frederick was buried on the 7th December 1912 and that his residence was 15 Allen Road in Stoke Newington.

Using the date and age given on the card, I was able to work out that Frederick Orchard Brown was the father-in-law of my 2nd great aunt. Although this is quite a distant relative from me, by investigating the address shown in the burial register, I discovered through that to my great grandmother, Brown had more significance. His son married a cousin with whom she had been brought up and the families had lived close by throughout my great grandmother's life. This was useful not just genealogically, but in giving me an insight into the social history of my great grandmother, Lily, and the tightly-knit London village in which she was raised.


The most mysterious of the funeral cards in my grandmother's collection was for an Alice Maud Gannon, who died 30th October 1941, aged 54, apparently away from her loved ones. Inspired by the third child of Queen Victoria, Princess Alice Maud Mary (1843-1878), Alice Maud was a popular name for girls born during the mid-Victorian period. But this Alice Maud did not appear to be in our family tree. She was buried in Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, which was situated near to where my North London family lived. Fortunately, after checking the census and London electoral registers, I discovered Mrs Gannon had lived next to my great grandmother for over twenty years. Sometimes it's not just relatives who appear in old family papers!

There are a number of small archived collections of funeral cards. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London's South Kensington has an extensive collection, some of which can be explored online. Many can be found in family files or some miscellaneous material in local archives. Others can be bought through collector or online auction sites.

We would love to hear about the funeral cards in your family documents - especially if they refer to any of the cemeteries in the Deceased Online database. Please do get in touch, with scanned copies of the cards if possible, and post on our Twitter or Facebook pages.

Sources
Celia Heritage, Tracing You Ancestors through Death Records: A Guide for Family Historians (Pen & Sword, 2013)

Comments

  1. Nice blog!! Writting a funeral card is great idea it will help to know the family about some good memories of the person they lost. For affordable cremation and funeral services you can contact affordable Cremation Belvidere.

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