Things as Certain as Death and Stationery

Stationery is undeniably a key component in many of life's most important moments - congratulations cards when a baby is born, birthday cards, wedding invitations: all are crucial and immensely personal uses of humble paper. Getting the correct stationery is never more important, however, than with regards to the passing of a loved one. In light of recent events, we felt it would be pertinent to pen a little something about stationery's place at the end of life, and explain why its significance.

Breaking the news

In the gentler times of snail mail, a letter would be sent to friends and family, informing them of their loved one's passing. Starting with the exterior, there were two important traditions regarding the envelope of a death notice.

Firstly, when considering the sealing wax, black was the only way to go. Black is the colour most closely associated with death and mourning in the Western world,  a tradition that can be linked back as far as the Romans, who made a practice of wearing a dark-coloured toga to mark the passing of a family member. By sealing a letter in black wax, you gave the recipient advanced notice of what was contained within, allowing them to plan accordingly as to when they open it. They were able to take a private moment to digest the contents, without it being too great a shock, which was a subtly thoughtful touch to accompany such dreadful news. 

The other tradition in this vein was the lining the edges of envelopes in black, to mark that the letter held grave tidings. The idea with the black edged stationery was much the same when talking about death notices - it was a pre-warning for  the recipient of such unfortunate and tragic news. The custom did not stop there, however. In the 19th century - and even into the early 20th century- a person in mourning would also adorn their personal stationery with a black border for up to a year after a loved on's death, letting all who received missives from them know that their mourning period was still in effect. Sometimes, this border would be reduced in thickness as the mourning period progressed, to symbolise the easing of grief, however these traditions were not always followed. One notable exception to the first rule was Mark Twain, who still adorned his correspondence with a black border up to ten years after the death of his daughter Susy, according to the Shapell Manuscript Collection.

The black border is not simply contained to personal stationery, though. Newspaper articles announcing the death of a prominent royal or political figure would often be bordered in black as a mark of respect, and even some paintings of recently deceased subjects would be adorned with a black border to indicate the tragic new dimension their passing had brought the work. Most pertinently, a black bordered notice was pinned to the gates of Balmoral Castle mere days ago to officially notify the public of the passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II, a tradition that has endured for many generations of royals. 

Notice of the Queen's death at Balmoral Castle gates

Funeral stationery 

Nowadays, written notices to inform us of the death of a loved one are practically unheard of, but that does not mean that stationery is absent from our death rituals: the importance of proper stationery at a funeral simply cannot be overstated. It allows a personal touch to be brought to proceedings, and provides a subtle, yet impactful avenue through which the deceased can be lovingly commemorated. Whilst invitations are falling out of fashion, they are still not completely unused, and are a far more personal and meaningful call to celebrate someone's life than a simple text or email could ever be. 

The order of service is by far the most memorable piece of funeral service stationery, and for good reason. It may seem, on first glance, to be a simple itinerary, allowing guests a quick look forward at the events to come, but, at its best, an order of service can be a deeply personal piece of work. While funerals services themselves are generally formal and sombre, the order of service can really reflect the deceased's character, and can enormously touching as a result. Poems, photos, dedications, and pieces from various family members are all ways in which the order of service can bring a touch of levity and joy to an otherwise melancholy day, and it is likely the only piece of funeral ephemera that guests will hang on to. The creation of a thoughtful order of service is one of the final physical acts one can perform for the departed, to ensure they have a truly fitting send off. From here, the stationery-in-death-ritual journey nears its end, with the final instance of it appearing being with: 

The Condolence Book

Arguably the most important piece of funeral stationery, the condolence book is the culmination of all the thoughts and feelings that arise from process of grieving, condensed into one beautiful binding. Usually displayed at the wake, the condolence book allows for family and friends to immortalise their memories of the deceased in a permanent housing, which is generally held on to by the bereaved, and often passed down through generations.

Books of condolence are also utilised in an official capacity by local councils, wings of the armed forces, and many other organisations upon the passing of a prominent member of society. At this very moment, books of condolence are being filled out in towns and barracks up and down the country, in order for them to be delivered to the palace once everyone has had a chance to record what the Queen meant to them. Books of condolence are vessels that bring closure - places to say a final goodbye to a personal relation or important historical figure -and can be objects of great comfort for the bereaved, reflecting, as they do, the impact their loved one had on the people around them. They are a beautiful and abiding tradition, that pays fitting tribute to those we continue to love, despite their passing.

Stay safe and well, Scriptum blog readers x

Photograph of the Queen in black and white