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?
It 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.
By 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.