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  • testerandjones

Words mean so much

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

Today, in a world of social media, many of us find ourselves discovering about a death of somebody we know online, perhaps through a Facebook post and often end up sending our condolences through a message on the same post. While this might seem a little impersonal, somebody told us recently that simply putting a post on Facebook about their loved one’s death took some of the pressure away of having to make phone calls. They also took comfort in reading the comments.

That said, the majority of us still appreciate a sympathy card when it arrives in the post and it’s something we can keep afterwards. One lady said that when her young daughter died, she bought a wooden trunk and stored her daughter’s special things in there, including some paintings from nursery, birthday cards and the sympathy cards she received. They were, she explained, special. Sometimes, many years later, she sits down with a cup of tea and reads through them again and feels supported once more.

Historically, cards sent out surrounding a death were initially more of announcements. These tended to be simple and edged in black, often with the envelope edged in black too. This was in the days when a card posted in the morning could potentially be received the same day and was an efficient way of letting people know the news. We find that some families still like to send announcement cards and we have help them with that, if required.

In the past, people might also send out simple cards or printed letters, again edged in black, thanking friends and family for their support. One of our team has one from 1939 for her Great Grandmother, Florence, who died in Birmingham. It is rather like a little leaflet with the funeral director’s details on the back. On the front it says ‘In Loving Memory’ with a short verse from the bible and details of when the funeral took place. It opens up to a printed message from the family wishing a ‘desire to express their heartfelt thanks for the kindness and sympathy shown to them in their great loss’.

According to the card maker, Hallmark, the company began to produce sympathy cards in the 1920s. Before that, people were sending letters of sympathy from 1840 onwards when postage stamps emerged.

While we know that the receiving of a sympathy card is universally appreciated – we’ve all sat down to write one and found the words hard to find. This is something which Bruce Feiler discussed in a blog in The New York Times in which he said that, rather falling back on cliched phrases, sharing a positive memory is often a good thing to do.

Bruce explained that one gentleman told him the condolence notes that moved him most were from strangers who shared a recollection of his father. “That was important for me because I realised his place in the world,” he said. “At the time, you’re only thinking of your own relation to the loved one. You realise this person had impact beyond you. That was comforting.”

Bruce added that the food writer and editor, Jane Lear, has collected etiquette books for many years and studied how condolence notes have evolved. He explained that she prefers the model outlined by Millicent Fenwick in ‘Vogue’s Book of Etiquette’, published in 1948. First an expression of sympathy (‘I was so sorry to hear...’). Second a word about the deceased. Finally, an expression of comfort.

“This all makes perfect sense,” Jane said. “But I think my favourite note upon the death of my brother was from one of my closest friends. ‘My dear Jane,’ he wrote. ‘IT STINKS.’”

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