In this age of crowdfunded funerals and rising cremation rates, is the use of the venerable prayer card – the staple of Catholic (and other religions’) funerals – going by the wayside? I think not.
Consider this – in the thick of the Bible Belt, the famously evangelical Protestant region in the southeastern United States, some Catholic Masses are filling to standing-room only. Meanwhile, many Baptist, Methodist and Lutheran churches are struggling to keep enough people in the pews to justify opening their doors.
It has widely been reported that the U.S. as a whole is losing its religion, with Protestant mainline churches seeing the most decline over the past 15 years. But two key factors are contributing to Catholic growth throughout the south: a boom in the Hispanic population, and the southern migration of Catholic retirees and families from the Northeast. This growth should help sustain the need for prayer cards not only in the South, but throughout the country.
These cards should remain an omnipresent feature of Roman Catholic and other religion’s funerary customs, and provided at memorial services and wakes. But have you ever wondered about the history of prayer cards?
Since the 15th century, holy cards have served as portable objects of devotion. The oldest surviving holy card is said to be a German woodcut print from the year 1423 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.
There is a great aesthetic disparity between early 20th-century cards, which were printed in black on thick cardboard with silver leaf embellishments, and cards from the late 1950s and onward, printed in full color on thinner paper. It is perhaps no coincidence that the mid-1950s mark the beginning of the direct advertisement of funeral homes on the cards themselves.
The imagery on the cards also has changed. The earliest cards showcased images of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross, or else tending to his dying stepfather, Saint Joseph. Later cards show Christ’s glorious resurrection, or the Christ child instructing the masses. Just as the verb “dying” has been euphemized into “passing,” so did holy cards begin to replace death’s meaner aspects with images of heavenly triumph. The popularity of holy cards began to wane with the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965. In the decades since, holy cards have been all but relegated to a funeral item and marketed as prayer cards.
That’s enough about history. What about the present? What can be done to ensure that more than just Catholic families see prayer cards as a special keepsake that they can keep in a purse or wallet, or tucked away in your Bible?
While many of the following suggestions may already be in use at your funeral home, here are eight things you can do to ensure that prayer cards are seen as an important part for a funeral service.
It’s all in a name – First thing is to stop calling them prayer cards, holy cards or funeral cards. Rather, call them memorial cards. That way, they can represent cards that feature either religious or secular themes.
Speaking of secular – Be sure to stock more than just religious motifs for the cards. Offer designs that feature patriotic or other special interest themes, such as hobbies. This allows you to get creative with the card’s backside.
Customize the backside – Rather than printing a prayer on the back with the other information, consider having the family place one of Mom’s specials recipes or Dad’s favorite sayings on a secular card. For a patriotic card – why not suggest printing the Pledge of Allegiance for the back?
Different strokes for different folks – Understand that all Hispanic families are not the same when it comes to their Catholic faith. Be sure to offer cards for different demographics, like families from Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile and more. Catholic families from these countries have a following for their patron saint; they feel warmth and touched by having those images present in a funeral service.
Give them more than one home – Traditionally, the cards are placed next to the register book and/or the donation table. For a change, why not have the grandchildren involved in the service by having them hand out the cards?
Finding faith at the finish line – Remember, many people turn to their faith in their last moments. When people get sick, they turn to their practicing faith and pray. Let them continue that faithful journey by offering them cards that feature images from their homeland. For example, Irish people are devoted to Saint Patrick, Cubans to The Our Lady of Charity, Mexicans to Our Lady of Guadalupe and Italians to St. Francis of Assisi.
Remind families how to use “leftovers” – If there are cards remaining after the service, remember to suggest that families include one in the acknowledgement cards, especially to friends who couldn’t physically make the service.
Make them part of every package – Besides offering memorial cards together as a set with register book and acknowledgement cards, make sure to include them in every burial and cremation package that you offer.
Prayer Memorial cards have been a part of funerals for decades. With a little creative thinking, they can continue to live on and be a meaningful part of a family’s funeral celebration for a loved one well into the future. FBA
Carlos George is the President of St. Francis Cromo, a family-owned business that sells and distributes high quality religious items (prayer cards, crosses and crucifixes, register books, rosaries, announcement cards, and candles) to funeral homes and cemeteries throughout North America. Many of the products they offer are from the Cromo NB Studios of Milan Italy, the foremost publisher of fine religious art in the world. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or 877-331-3367.