Trawling through eBay recently, I came across a folder of sample funeral cards from the early twentieth century. As near as I can tell, salesmen would roam from funeral home to funeral home peddling these to undertakers, who would in turn press them on bereaved families. They were standard thank-you notes, essentially—“The family of _________ will hold in grateful remembrance your Spiritual Bouquet and kind expression of sympathy”—but unattached to any death in particular, their messages were gauche, even funny. That they were framed in advertising copy didn’t help. Imagine: Someone you love dies, and before you can even pick out the announcement cards, you have to read sentences like “Genuine engraving achieves its inherent beauty from a correlation of width and depth which no other process possesses.” As a character in Terry Southern’s The Loved One says: “Death has become a middle-class business. There’s no future in it.”
The sample cards reminded of the mundane aspects of dying (not to get all “Musée des Beaux Arts” on you) and I thought of them again when I saw the grid of sixteen sample headstones on display at Ricco/Maresca Gallery’s new exhibition, “Expiration Date,” which presents a variety of work focused on mortality. These rough, unembellished paintings come from English, Indiana, where I can’t imagine they were an effective sales tool—there’s nothing stately in the memorials as they’re presented here, nothing that confers honor in death. As art, though, they’re terrific, in the modern and archaic sense of the word.
“I have not seen anything like them, ever,” Frank Maresca wrote to me. “They date to the 1920s and most of the names on the stones are generic—Pond, Summer, etc. They were found untouched in their handmade wood carrying case: a total time capsule.”
He’s not kidding about the names: they have an everyman flatness to them. Pond. Love. Lane. Land. Roll. Cole. Cook. Grant. Hood. Bell. A few dare to wander into disyllabic territory, but only as far as Jackson, Roberts, and the like. Taken in the aggregate, they blur into an indistinguishable mass of white-bread America, but they reward close scrutiny, especially for what they say about the marketing of death. These tombstones couldn’t be blank, after all—how would the customer know what the letters would look like? But a name with the faintest whiff of the particular—a Smolenski, say, or a Piepenbring—could dissuade an otherwise willing client, who had to imagine either himself or his loved one resting beneath this stone for all eternity. It wouldn’t do to picture some other guy resting in peace there. It takes a name like Cook, almost aspirational in its hollowness, to inspire that kind of confidence. Cook is for closers.
But did anyone in English, Indiana, I wonder, come away from these paintings with confidence? To buy a tombstone based on what you see here would be an act of faith roughly on par with praying for the newly deceased. Something about the paintings’ plain amateurishness—with the artist having only barely gestured toward, say, grass, trees, depth, texture, perspective—only amplifies their morbid quality. Notice, too, that the skies are always stormy, as if gloom were an effective sales tactic: buy this deluxe tombstone and the clouds will never part, for the memory of your loved one will always weigh heavy on your soul.
Even more than those sample funeral cards, these paintings give a glimpse into another era’s concept of death and ritual, and the prickly, mercantile realities surrounding that ritual. Actually, about those sample cards—the starting bid on eBay was $9.99, but no one made an offer. Not even me.
“Expiration Date” is at Ricco/Maresca through April 23.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.