Sympathy Cards

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Acceptable expressions of sympathy vary across cultures from open and varied displays of compassion to the denial of any sympathy for even a society's most troubled members. While many people take sympathy for granted, its expression is more characteristic of some cultures and at some times in history than in others. Expressing sympathy requires energy, time, and sometimes money, and becomes problematic under conditions of extreme hardship when one's own misery is paramount. Sympathy is functional for society, however, because it provides a social connection among people; without it, life's emotional climate becomes colder and harsher. Each society's "sympathy logic," or when, where, how, and over what lost relationship sympathy is to be expressed, becomes a part of its social order. Norms develop about sympathy attitudes and behaviors and who is to express such concern for whom. Through expressions of sympathy, people can be linked in ways that affect the social interaction of families, work forces, and entire communities, as well as the individuals involved. Thus, expressing sympathy can increase social bonds while denying it helps unravel the social fabric.

The refusal to offer sympathy has profound effects on human relationships. This social emotion of compassionate affinity, of being personally affected by another's grief or suffering, can only take place in real or imagined social interaction. Sympathy is a complicated, multifaceted emotional process requiring elements of empathy, sympathy sentiment, and display. Genuinely sympathetic persons imagine taking the role of the other, have some feeling about recipients of the sympathy and their plights, and engage in nonverbal (a look), verbal ("I am so sorry"), tactile (a hug), gift-giving (providing money after a job loss), or aid behaviors (cleaning house during illness) as symbolic displays of their sympathy. Within these broad general categories of expression, most cultures have specific norms for the timing and displaying of sympathy to bereaved persons following a death. One form of showing concern for mourners is sending sympathy cards.

The Emergence of the Greeting Card

Most cultures view death as the most difficult type of loss humans experience, and expressions of sympathy in such traumatic circumstances can be difficult to convey. What does one say? How does one act when confronted with someone who is grieving? Matters surrounding death, once handled by family members and friends, have been given into the hands of professionals in modern societies. Increased standards of living, developments in medicine and science, urbanization, and affluence have allowed people in many nations to develop a degree of death denial not possible earlier in history, and people have become increasingly uncomfortable with and isolated from death. The introduction of sympathy cards in the nineteenth century offered an effective solution for maintaining social bonds in an increasingly technological and impersonal world.

In his The Romance of Greeting Cards (1956), Ernest Chase, a prominent figure in America's early greeting card industry, views the history of greeting cards as beginning with early human attempts to achieve or maintain relationships with others. Symbolic gestures of greeting, whether carvings on rocks, smoke signals, gloves, flowers, letters, or any others humans have devised, provided social connections in modern times in a manner elaborated upon and refined by greeting cards. As early as the 1600s, Valentine's cards were drawn, lettered, and sent, though not sold. The most popular holiday card, the Christmas card, originated in England in the 1800s and immediately captivated the public.

The Sympathy Card

Following a death, the surrounding emotion can be expressed in various ways, with each expression requiring a degree of investment and commitment. The sympathy card requires a minimum of both. In a sense, it is an expression of genuine concern without having to get involved. While other demonstrations of sympathy remain important, the pace of modern life, discomfort with death, widespread acquaintance, and mobility are among factors that encourage impersonal, minimally committed sympathy display.

Although the sending of greeting cards has become common, some societies have not developed the custom. In 1971 Richard Rhodes, a book editing manager of Hallmark cards and contributing editor for Harper's, reported that the English were sending few cards at that time, while the Europeans sent fewer still. By the year 2000, sympathy cards were common in Western societies, with the United States leading in their usage. However, even in countries where sending cards is popular, sympathy cards may not be included. Late-twentieth-century China experienced a greeting card deluge, with hundreds of millions of cards produced. New Year's cards, Christmas cards, and cards for other happy occasions were popular, but sympathy cards did not exist. Instead, people sent sympathy telegrams, which were deemed a more appropriate display of support during sad and difficult times. By the 1990s electronic and computergenerated greeting cards had appeared around the globe, and numerous online companies offered free cards for public usage. Even so, electronic sympathy cards were not as rapidly accepted as those for other occasions. Apparently many people still felt that paper cards, like sympathy telegrams, indicated more appropriate support to the bereaved following a death.

Just as the greeting card industry has expanded in modern societies, so have the "sympathy margins," or the situations in which sympathy is to be felt and expressed. These margins vary across cultures and according to demographic variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, religion, and others. For instance, women continue to buy the large majority of greeting cards and are culturally expected to offer sympathy for a larger range of incidents and more minor difficulties than are men. Women also tend to extend sympathy for a longer period of time. Women have always been the mainstay of the greeting card market and have been the primary purchasers and senders of sympathy cards. In an attempt to attract ethnic markets, companies in the United States began to offer cards aimed at African Americans and Hispanics. At the end of the twentieth century, age-specific markets were developed, as were specific religious markets.

Early sympathy cards were often announcements of death, with "in loving memory of" or "in affectionate remembrance of," followed by the name of the deceased. As with more modern cards, some were plain, whereas others used more elaborate drawings and imagery. Early cards sometimes featured tombstones with names and epitaphs. Sympathy cards from the mid to late twentieth century used less overt imagery. These cards were sent to mourners to help soften the blow of death, and their colors, verbal content, and visual symbols became designed to reduce death's harshness for the bereaved. Their imagery has changed over time, with a movement from black and white to color and other alterations in content and presentation. Even into the twenty-first century, the words death and dead were virtually never mentioned. Modern views of tact and propriety led to a few standardized images.

Marsha McGee's 1980 groundbreaking content analysis of 110 American sympathy cards and a replication in 1998 by Charmaine Caldwell, Marsha McGee, and Charles Pryor of 137 cards found flowers to be the symbol most commonly used. Scenes depicting nature remained popular, while images such as seashells, rainbows, and butterflies generally increased over these two decades. Religious symbolism was used in only a small percentage of the cards analyzed in both studies. Dark colors and black were never used. Pastels were prominent, with bright colors increasing.

According to Hallmark's research division, by 2000 Americans alone were sending around 125 million sympathy cards each year. There were thousands of designs on the market, with card sending increasing each year. Sympathy margins had expanded, and cards were also designed for job loss, divorce, chronic illness and disability, and other experiences of loss for which sympathizers wished to show concern. Cards were aimed at grieving children as well as adults, and a huge array of sympathy cards for grieving pet owners continued to widen the market. Cards that expressed the message "thinking about you," in difficult times made up a rapidly growing market. Language had moved from poetry and verse to more conversational messages. Greeting cards are carefully designed to reflect what a society's people are thinking and feeling; Hallmark, like other companies working to keep ahead of market trends, developed and marketed cards appropriate for miscarriage, suicide, cancer, and other specific types of death when the public became receptive. Messages such as "When a special life ends in such an unexpected way, it can be totally overwhelming . . . ," and "Sorrow reaches even deeper when a loss comes so suddenly . . . ," were offered to cushion the shock of different types of loss.

Research samples show most Americans would appreciate receiving sympathy cards. While people report that personal letters are better to send, few do more than write a note along with a card. Mourners have reported that the expression of concern from others is more important during bereavement than its form or its content. Sympathy cards remain one prominent means of expressing this concern. As electronic communication and international markets continue to expand into the twenty-first century, more and more mourners across the globe may find comfort from such messages of condolence. As a simple gesture of support, sympathy cards provide meaning to both senders and receivers. At the least, the sending of sympathy cards links people together and "reinforces a sense of community and solidarity in the wake of the calamity of death" (Lippy 1983, p. 107).

See also: Death System; Grief; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Metaphors and Euphemisms; Mourning


Caldwell, Charmaine, Marsha McGee, and Charles Pryor. "The Sympathy Card As Cultural Assessment of American Attitudes toward Death, Bereavement and Extending Sympathy: A Replicated Study." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 37 (1998):121132.

Chase, Ernest. The Romance of Greeting Cards: An Historical Account of the Origin, Evolution and Development of Christmas Cards, Valentines, and Other Forms of Engraved or Printed Greetings from the Earliest Day to the Present Time. 1956. Reprint, Detroit, MI: Tower Books, 1971.

Clark, Candace. Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Erbaugh, Mary. "Greeting Cards in China: Mixed Language of Connections and Affections." In Deborah Davis ed., The Consumer Revolution in China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Hirshey, Gerri. "Happy ( ) to You." New York Times Magazine, 2 July 1995, 2027.

Lippy, Charles. "Sympathy Cards and the Grief Process." Journal of Popular Culture 17, no. 3 (1983):98108.

McGee, Marsha. "Faith, Fantasy, and Flowers: A Content Analysis of the American Sympathy Card." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 11 (1980):2535.

Papson, Stephen. "From Symbolic Exchange to Bureaucratic Discourse: The Hallmark Greeting Card." Theory, Culture and Society 3, no. 2 (1986):99111.

Rhodes, Richard. "Packaged Sentiment." Harper's 243 (December 1971):6166.

Internet Resources

Greeting Card Association. "State of the Industry." In the Greeting Card Association [web site]. Available from