Dhir holds the distinction of possessing the largest number of mourning covers and stamps (mourning) in the world. The collection showcases a wide variety of letters about death, ranging from pre-stamp covers of 1790 to recent ones. These include personal letters, postcards, official notices, funeral notices, death telegrams; church memorial services letters, embalmers bills and receipts, elegiac letters and gravestone and coffin receipts.
"The oldest cover in my collection is a 1798 pre-stamp mourning cover. I have mourning covers with the world's first stamp, the Penny Black. I also have a rare cover with a strip of four Penny Reds. The Penny Red is the world's second stamp. My collection of nearly 5,000 letters bears the news of death for the recipient and was commonly edged in black to warn the bearer of sorrow. To me, this collection is very personal. I can feel the pain and hurt in these letters and I feel that I am with those receiving the news. These dire dispatches of the 19th and 20th centuries usually included a black border around the envelope's edge or around the stamp. Some had black wax seals on them," Dhir said.
According to him, it was Queen Victoria who reinforced the fashion of mourning covers. After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, she went into mourning that lasted till her death in 1901. She wore black and used black-bordered stationery for her letters all throughout though the normal practice was to have a mourning period of one year.
"Philatelists look out for challenges. Collecting mourning letters was a big challenge as such correspondence is not preserved in many societies, including India. Death messages are normally torn up after being read as preserving them is considered inauspicious. This makes things very difficult for people like me. Today, I have letters from nearly 170 countries. It took me nearly 20 years to build up this collection that includes letters mourning the deaths of Queen Victoria, King George V, George VI, the Popes, Adolf Hitler, US Presidents, Mahatma Gandhi, Princess Diana and even Saddam Hussein," Dhir added.
His collection also includes several covers of military mail of the both World Wars where letters couldn't be delivered due to the deaths of addressees in the battlefield. These were returned to the sender after being bordered black.
"They are extremely tragic and each one has a story to tell. The 'Missing in Action' covers are heartbreaking. The military post would put black markings on these letters and return them to the senders with the missive 'Missing in Action: Presumed Dead'. I try to put myself in the place of the loved ones who got these letters back. I also have letters from Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz, Dachau and Berger Belsen. I also have the world's first black-bordered mourning stamp issued after Abraham Lincoln's death in 1866," the philatelist said.
Dhir has nearly 4,900 mourning covers and admits that he sometimes feels like a voyeur when he reads the death messages. "Most of the covers I have had the original letters inside them. One set of about 40 covers were posted by the same person to the same address and has 40 letters written over two years. The letters reveal how a woman copes with the loss of her husband and how she gradually reconciled to the grim reality," he said.
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/followceleb.cms?alias=mourning cover,Khushwant Singh,Anil Dhir