History Blog

Grave Matters: Items of Remembrance

(left) Locket (with brown hair inside) made of glass and brass. Used as mourning jewelry in the late 1800s. SDHC #1900.56.44. (right) Watch Fob, c. 1899. Made for donor’s grandfather in Raton, NM, from the hair of Peg Preston Forester (donor’s mother), 1893-1989 and Eme Preston Neil (donor’s aunt), 1887-1981; Peg was 6 years old and Eme 12 years old when the fob was made. Gift of Jackie Linstrom, SDHC #89.68.

Physical items from the dead have, since time immemorial, been a way for the living to stay connected to those they have lost. Collecting physical mementos of the dead, such as locks of hair, prayer cards, funeral notices, and photographs, all suggest a strong desire to retain the memory of those departed. Regardless of a society’s customs, remembering the dead has been with us since the beginning.

San Diegans collect physical mementos to remember dearly-departed-friends and family members just as people have done for previous generations and the History Center’s Research Library and Archives contain representative funeral mementos and we will look at these items among others that have been commonly kept over the last two centuries.

Memorial cards are often distributed at wakes and funerals in memory of the deceased. These cards come from the centuries-old Roman Catholic tradition of prayer or holy cards, the oldest of which dates from 1423. They were most commonly made in the size of a playing card bearing a devotional image of a place, figure (usually a saint) and a favorite prayer or verse. Originally woodcuts with hand coloring, the printing press made it possible to mass-produce and widely distribute the cards, making them more popular. Such cards have now become funeral memorabilia.

Since the early 1900s, many funeral homes have provided this commemorative item as part of their services. They add the name of the deceased and dates of their life to the card as a reminder to keep the individual’s memory alive or to pray on their behalf. These cards have become popular not only with Catholics but also Orthodox Christians and Protestant Christians, the latter emphasizing biblical themes.

Today’s cards also feature photographs of the deceased and offer more options of prayers, images, verses and quotes. The History Center’s Archives hold a few examples of San Diegans’ in memoriam cards, such as the one pictured here “in loving remembrance” of Rosanna Robinson who died in 1891.

Obituaries in newspapers and online share the sad news of a person’s passing, a short account of their life, and information about funeral arrangements.  The SDHC Research Library and Archives houses funeral notices dating past 1875. Families or organizations shared notices to inform of a death and to invite mourners to the services to pay their respects. The funeral notice pictured here requested members of the San Diego Masonic Lodge No. 35 to attend the funeral of their late Brother Mason, Charles Parke Taggart.


Documents from SDHC Document Archives. 

Another much more personal example of a memorial item is hair jewelry.  Possessing a physical piece of a person, such as strands of their hair, create a connection to the individual for whom the hair belonged.  Queen Victoria of England wore a locket with her beloved Prince Albert’s hair after his death in 1861.  First taking hold in England, this sentimental and fashionable trend became popular in the United States around the Civil War.  Hair was a popular item to remember the dead because it could be easily manipulated into rings, pendants, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and brooches and was rather resistant to decay over time.  The pieces were often adorned with metal work and precious stones.  Hair cuttings were also laid into motifs related to death or memory.  It was also stitched into embroidery pillows or wall hangings.  The jewelry could be worn by family members in the immediate days of the funeral.  Afterwards the hair could be stored in curios or shadow boxes, even Bible boxes, that were on view for others providing a constant presence of the deceased in the lives of those left behind.  Eventually the trend faded after the Victorian era likely due to changing attitudes about death, new theories relating to hygiene, and evolving fashion styles.

The History Center’s object collection features a number of pieces of hair jewelry, including a locket made of glass and brass containing brown hair from the late 1800s as well as a watch fob made from elaborately woven human hair with gold ornaments from 1899.  The History Center is fortunate to also have a hair wreath in its collection.  Wreaths of wire and hair, often with floral designs, could be worn in the hair of the remaining living person, draped over their shoulders as memorial shawl, or displayed in the family home within shadow boxes. More elaborate wreaths included the hair of multiple individuals both dead and alive representing the family tree. These large-scale items are difficult for museums to keep safe, and conservation is limited in how best to preserve the items outside of airtight boxes (another good reason to support the San Diego History Center).

Alternative, and functional, physical mementos were the shoes of the deceased.  Shoes were hard to come by and expensive to make in early San Diego. The shoes of the deceased would be kept and handed down after a funeral.  Shoes are one item rarely shown on a person’s inventory list of physical possessions upon their passing because they were often given away.

Gloves were also given as funerary gifts.  But the gift was given to the people invited to the funeral.  That’s right, those invited to the funeral were given a gift for attending. This is one tradition that has taken a backseat to today’s customs of sending gifts to the deceased’s loved ones.

Two other frequent means of memorializing the dead are the death mask and post mortem photography.  Death masks are plaster casts of a person’s face moments after the last breath of life.  Typically reserved for people of prominence and national significance, these masks depict the person in their quiet calm or tormented anguish of death.  These masks were then paraded around the community, state, even the nation in matters of government or military officials, to show the living the last vestiges of their former leaders.

OP 16108-1 Wake - Guadalupe de Prat de Ojeda - ndWhen a family member died in the Victorian household, the family portrait would be taken down and often replaced with a post mortem photograph or painting depicting the entire family including the deceased.  In both instances of photographs and portraits, the deceased were typically posed to appear as if they were living and were surrounded by their family members.  More often, the deceased were depicted in full white regalia, including white powdering on the face, hands and exposed limbs opposed to the other family members who were dressed in black or dark colored attire.

There are no known examples of death masks in the current holdings of the History Center even though both were made fairly frequently in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


“19th Century Mourning.” National Museum of Funeral History. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct. 2016. http://nmfh.org/exhibits/permanent-exhibits/19th-century-mourning.

Goulet, Anthony Jay. “A Brief History of Prayer Cards.” A Loving Memory. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Sept. 2016. http://www.alovingmemory.com/history-of-+prayer-cards.html.

Harron, Susan, and Jim Harron. “Remembering A Loved One With Mourning Jewelry.” Hair Work. N.p., Dec. 1997. Web. 7 Sept. 2016. http://hairwork.com/remember.htm.

Little, Becky. “Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made From Hair.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 9 Sept. 2016. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/160211-victorian-hair-art-work-jewelry-death-history/.

Neighbors, Joy. “Hair Wreaths: A Victorian Mourning Custom.” Web log post. A Grave Interest. N.p., 20 June 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2016. http://agraveinterest.blogspot.com/2014_06_01_archive.html.

Williams, Michael. “Like Baseball Cards, but for Funerals.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/legacy-funeral-cards/459963/.

Welcome to the San Diego History Center Blog

Welcome to the History Center’s new blog! Posts will explore topics relevant to San Diego’s past, present, and future. Each week, discover new stories about our community mined from our vast object, document, and photo collections.

This October, join us as we explore San Diego’s evolving attitude towards death in our series, “Grave Matters: San Diego’s Relationship with Death.”

While death itself has remained a constant in life, attitudes surrounding death and ways of interring the deceased have changed over the course of time. Views and traditions of death may have shifted, however, like all cultures of the past, San Diegans must still confront our physical contact with the dead, funeral rites, and interment practices, and how we grieve and memorialize those gone before us.