If I Die Young: A Brief History of Funeral Invitations



I have a confession to make. I’m in love.

While recently conducting research on burial shrouds for The Order of the Good Death, I came across some examples of 18th-century funeral invitations. I have to admit, I wasn’t even aware such morbidly ornate ephemera existed till I stumbled upon one in the catalogue of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The above funeral invitation dates from 1776. The script—placed at the centre of the design—is flanked by two figures: Death drawing a bow with three arrows and Father Time holding an hourglass. Behind them are black drapes being held up by two cherubs; and at the bottom of the invitation is a funeral scene depicting mourners gathered around a tomb. At the very top of the design is the deceased’s coat of arms.

This got me wondering: when did funeral invitations come into existence? Why? And when did they fall from fashion?

Funeral3It appears the funeral invitation arose in the 17th century, and acted mainly as an admission ticket since there would have been limited seating in both the church as well as the funeral feast which followed. Amongst the earliest printed cards were those in which the recipient was ‘desired to accompany’ the corpse, with the end phrase being ‘…and Bring this Ticket with you’ (see left). Pallbearers were often assigned a number on the ticket to signify their position in carrying the coffin.

Early invitations were wood engraved, with the centre remaining blank so the details could be filled in by hand. As technology progressed, however, printers began creating funeral invitations using stock borders and text that could then be adapted to the occasion. Note the second example does not include the deceased’s coat of arms and therefore is a fairly generic design.

Funeral4By the 19th century, engraved funeral invitations like the ones above were being replaced with small, embossed memorial cards that were then sent out after the funeral as a keepsake. These were typically white with a silhouette at the centre, surrounded by Classical figures, urns and columns. They would have been mounted on black flock or velvet to set off the design; and were created specifically to be framed.

Which brings me back to my love affair…

For me, there’s nothing like the original design, with its skulls, scythes and hourglasses. Give me a Georgian funeral invitation over a Victorian memorial card any day of the week!

Luckily for me, I have very talented friends. The esteemed cartoonist and 18th-century enthusiast, Adrian Teal—author of the ingenious book, Gin Lane Gazette—has eagerly agreed to design a funeral invitation should I die young…I can’t tell whether this enthusiasm stems from his love of a challenge, or his desire to be rid of me after weeks of calling in favours.

If Mr Teal’s Danse Macabre is anything to go by, my only regret will be that I won’t be around to see what undoubtedly would be a spectacularly morbid and whimsical design!

Perhaps I’ll resurrect a trend. Pun intended.


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By | 2013-04-25T14:29:11+00:00 April 25th, 2013|Casebooks|10 Comments


  1. vagrarian April 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    How deliciously morbid! I read once that for a time women were not allowed at funerals; something about their delicate constitutions and all that. Good excuse to stay home and get drunk, say I.

  2. Linda Blowney April 26, 2013 at 12:33 am - Reply

    We have a family friend who hosted his own funeral on his 70th birthday. Invited sll his friends, had flowers, music and a reception.

  3. nightsmusic April 26, 2013 at 1:05 am - Reply

    I had no idea there were funeral invitations. I’d have to rank them right up there with making jewelry from the deceased’s hair. Just morbid enough to be fun.

    I never fail to learn new things here. Thank you for another great post.

  4. […] A brief history of funeral invitations. […]

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  6. […] tai. Ei bine, genetica spune ca nu e deloc asa! Azi trimitem invitatii la nunti si la botezuri. Inainte vreme se trimiteau invitatii si la inmormantari. Cam de prin intercourse XVII a aparut aceas… high 10 resignation letters Stiti de ce picturile vechi se innegresc? Din cauza mercurului, produs […]

  7. Margaret December 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    This text is worth everyone’s attention. How can I find out

  8. erinford304 January 5, 2015 at 9:29 am - Reply

    We offer a professional, personal service for all our customers and we take pride in every order that we receive. We understand how important Memoriam Stationery Printing Ireland is to remember the life of a loved one, therefore our professional designers are always there to help. All our cards are expertly designed and finished to the highest standards which will be treasured for decades to come.

  9. christiestratos March 29, 2015 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    I’m currently writing a book based in the Victorian era, and your research has helped me a lot. Thanks!

  10. Stephen Barker July 31, 2015 at 11:19 pm - Reply

    I to think 18th Century Funeral Invitations are better than Victorian In Memorium cards. Unfortunately I can only afford to collect the latter. I have one framed card on a mount and several blank mounts are beautifully embossed and die-stamped. My sister thinks they are creepy but they are interesting for the imagery employed on the cards and mounts.

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