Recently, I interviewed Hayden Peters, a jewelery historian at the British Museum and long-time collector of memorials, sentimental jewelery, and art. His Website, Art of Mourning, is the largest educational resource for funeralia on the Internet. Hayden kindly wrote the following history of memorial ephemera exclusively for the ephemera blog:
Memorial ephemera is one of the earliest memorial techniques in history, as examples of writing announcing deaths have been discovered in the earliest human civilizations. The rise of the mourning industry in the 18th century led to the establishment of modern memorial ephemera in the form of memorial (or funeral) cards and photography.
Paper ephemera, such as funeral cards, Berlin-work (perforated paper with embroidery), and lithographs range from personal mourning to finished art. Funeral cards are the most prolific of this sort, due to their ability to adapt to changing technologies (e.g., photography, mail, digital), their economy and their ability to convey personal and/or religious sentiment.
Memorial cards were displayed in the house and were often a personal or familial statement of love and affection, rather than a device to announce a funeral. They can be adapted to popular art styles and vary in design, some being elaborately decorated for presentation on an easel, to a smaller, mailable card.
Cards were created to commemorate events and public deaths, such as Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, Queen Victoria (and royal deaths in general), deaths during important battles of the American Civil War, and many other grand events. These cards were often made to announce the event in itself and memorialize the dead, rather than announce the date of a funeral. The personal or biblical sentiments found in personal memorial cards were often replaced with nationalistic statements, and their function was different from that of a personal memorial card. Grand funerals themselves subsequently led to images, books, and ephemera being created for the event itself.
From the 18th century, memorial ephemera was relegated for mostly display purposes, and it is from this time that much of the neoclassical symbolism that funeralia is related to originates. Memorials from this time tend to reflect local ideology, be it cultural, religious, or social. Often created at the home or on a smaller scale, needlework, perforated paper, and hand crafts created displays for presenting memorial sentiment. This continued well into the 19th and early 20th centuries in many cases, with photography entering into home made memorials.
Technology advances in the 19th century saw funeralia ephemera adapt to cheaper, efficient mail services, photography, and a large industry to accommodate this. Post-1840s, funeralia and ephemera converged in post-mortem photography (i.e., the practice of taking photos of the recently deceased), and funeral cards which would experiment with images of the loved used in the design. Cheaper mail and print services created smaller memorial cards for mass audiences.
During the 20th century, memorial cards became smaller still and followed mainstream art styles. The high mortality rate from two World Wars increased the need for funeral cards, creating much demand in the industry. Today, traditional ephemera still exists, and is also converging with digital media, to produce funeral cards on the Internet. However, the popularity of traditional print is seen in today’s funeral industry.