This is a Short Con
that is executed by the Hustler
looking up recent obituaries and contacting the bereaved to complete a purchase begun by the dearly departed. The dead person put down a deposit (it says here), which is offered as a refund, to have something personalised for the bereaved. All the bereaved has to do is come up with the remaining 80 percent of the purchase price... which is many times the usual purchase price of the item.
Subtrope of Kick the Dog
- Mose Pray (and eventually his daughter Addie) run the Bibles from the Dead scam all across the Depression-era Midwest in the movie and TV series Paper Moon.
- It's possible this was the scam Big Dan Teague of O Brother, Where Art Thou? was pulling before he met up with the boys. It's unclear, though- he only describes himself as a bible salesman, "in the service of the Lord", and went on to tell about how there were vast amounts of money to be made.
- In Two Much (1995), a character pulls this con with paintings but gets in trouble when he tries to scam a mobster.
- In Blonde Crazy (also known as Larceny Lane), a con artist makes good money with this scam and he encourages Bert to join him in his endeavors. Specifically, the con involves pretending husbands had ordered "good luck charms" before dying. When the C.O.D. packages arrive, the widows are more than willing to pay for these "valuable" mementos.
Live Action Television
- In The Jericho Flower, a novel by Stephen F. Wilcox, one character is described as having pulled many scams, including this one.
- "The Miracle He Missed," a short story by John Eades, features a con artist who specializes in this scam. He is shocked when a former victim claims an image of Christ miraculously appeared on the bible he sold her.
- In "Slick-Tongued Devil," by Craig Johnson, a conman unknowingly attempts this scam on a sheriff.
- Death of the Tin Man's Wife, by John A. Broussard, has a version of this scam involving a roofing company, whose employees show up at the homes of recent widows and claim their husbands hired them to work on the house. They then pressure the women into honouring their husbands’ "legal contracts."
- In "Mr. Gullible and the Church Con," Rat talks about the cons he learned in prison and mentions this scam as one of his favorites.
- In "David Shore, Ph.D.," by Herbert Spohn, a character mentions this scam when trying to help explain the mysterious letter that the main character received.
- In Funism: The New Religion, by Richard Halfpenny, the narrator talks about the reasons why people enjoy reading the obituaries. One of the reasons is to pull this scam on widows.
- In José Angel Gutiérrez’s satirical book, A Chicano Manual on How to Handle Gringos, the author explains how "Chicano" con men pull this scam on elderly white widows.
- In "Correspondences," by R.T. Smith, the narrator has a prison pen pal named Dink, who has committed a plethora of crimes, including this scam. In fact, this Short Con is described as a "time-honored" scam.
- Roald Dahl’s short story, "The Bookseller," features this scam (see Urban Legend).
- In "Payment Due," by Trey Barker, a con artist specializes in getting people to pay for C.O.D. (Cash on Delivery) packages that were supposedly ordered by their deceased relatives. He gets in trouble when a group of victims seeks revenge for the pain he has caused them.
- Antiques Knock-off, by Barbara Allan, features a version of this scam involving an antique clock. A clock repairman explains how a con artist contacted a widow and claimed her recently deceased husband had put a down payment on the clock as a sixtieth wedding anniversary present. She gladly paid the remaining amount of one thousand dollars for a clock that was actually worth less than a hundred dollars. In a twist, this scam is actually used to cover up for another scam. In essence, the unscrupulous clock repairman suggests the widow has been a victim of this con as a way of explaining how she came in possession of a knock-off antique. In reality, the clock was a genuine antique when it was bought by her husband and when it was delivered. It was only later replaced with a knock-off by the watch repairman.
- Death of a Dreamer, by R.A. Bennett, has an inverted version of this scam. It basically goes like this: A con artist gets information from the obituaries and shows up at the widow’s house claiming to be a friend of the deceased. He feigns surprise at the man’s death and offers his condolences, apologizing for showing up at such an unfortunate time. The con man looks around for an object of value such a watch or medal and informs the widow that her husband had promised to sell him this item before his death. He pressures the widow into keeping her late husband’s promise. The item is then sold to someone else for a profit.
- One of the brain teasers in Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles, by Paul Sloane and Des MacHale, tells the story of a con artist who would pull this scam. He would send invoices to the families of wealthy deceased men claiming the men owed money for pornographic books they had ordered. So, how did he end up getting caught? He sent an invoice to the family of a deceased blind man.
- Featured in Kill with kindness by Dell Shannon, in which a character refers to the scam as an "old come-on" and a "little piddling con game."
- One segment in After-dinner laughter: favorite stories of the famous & not-so-famous features a scam artist who scanned the obituaries and sent bills claiming deceased clergymen owed money for books like The Sexual Life of Greece and Rome, and Lady Chatterley's Lover.
- In Matchstick Men: A Novel About Grifters with Issues, by Eric Garcia, Roy and Frankie pull many cons, including a version of this scam involving roofing. This short con is omitted from the film adaptation.
- In Addie Pray (the novel from which Paper Moon was adapted), the main characters do this with bibles and pictures of the deceased. Addie mentions that even when they branched out into bigger and more lucrative cons, they kept a few bibles and picture frames in the trunk of the car because it was a fast and easy way to pick up a few dollars in an emergency.
- Reformed con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. has written several non-fiction books on scams. In The Art of the Steal, he demonstrates the dangers of trusting a man in a uniform by having a fictional widow, "Mrs. Clark," falls for this obituary con.
- "Clerical Error," by James Gould Cozzens, deals with a hustler who uses the blackmail version of this scam, sending invoices to the homes of deceased people demanding they pay outstanding bills for pornography purchases allegedly made by the deceased.
- The Tales of the Unexpected episode, "Clerical Error," is an adaptation of this short story. Interestingly, that anthology series was known for adapting stories by Roald Dahl, whose short story, "The Bookseller" is very similar to Cozzens’ tale, even featuring a similar reason as to why the scam is found out. The similarities between Roald Dahl’s "The Bookseller" and Cozzens' "Clerical Error," are discussed in The Pretender, by David Belbin.
- Hustlers who pull this scam are discussed in The writer's guide to everyday life from prohibition through World War II, in which it is stated that only con artists with "guts" try to pull this scam in person rather than through the mail.
- One of the routines in The Making of A Standup Comedian, by Jimmy Correa, features a variation on this con. The comedian states that he looks through the obituaries and shows up at the dead person’s house claiming to be a long-lost lover or abandoned son. He then tries to weasel his way into getting some of the deceased person’s money or belongings.
- The plot of "Easy Money," by Evan Hunter, revolves around this con. In this version of the scam, however, the con artist doesn’t always hide his knowledge that the person who supposedly ordered the Bible is deceased. He also allows the mark to pay for the engraved Bible in installments.
- Shows up in an episode of Hustle. A young conman pulls this scam on a number of elderly widows, but when he makes the mistake of taking money from Danny's grandmother, he becomes the protagonists' latest mark. Due to the style of storytelling we never realize this until the end as we think that the mark is actually joining them.
- They themselves do a variation on this in which they read about a stolen painting and try and sell it to a third party. Unfortunately the third party is the original owner and they fail to realize that fact before hand. He then takes Mickey hostage until they return the real painting.
- In one episode of Dragnet, "The Big Betty", a group of criminals uses this con to sell cheap junk at high prices.
- In a storyline in Steve Canyon, a college student looking for a part-time job is recruited by a pair of conmen running this scam, who plan to use him as a fall guy if they hit trouble.
- A variation appears in the short play "Last Post" by Jean McConnell: A woman runs a con where she picks a wealthy, respectable and recently dead man and writes to his widow asking for a contribution to the upkeep of their illegitimate child. (The play's heroine is the latest mark, and doesn't discover until the end that it's a con — whereupon she decides that the loss of the money is outweighed by the relief that her husband was after all the honorable man she's always believed him to be, and everybody gets a happy ending.)
- A variation on this is a traditional urban legend. The conman would look for a sufficiently wealthy family in the obituaries, and then go to the home and claim that the dearly departed had ordered...erotic material from him, relying on the family's need to avoid a scandal to keep them from examining the claim too closely. He was found out when he tried the trick on the family of a recently deceased blind man. This is the subject of the Roald Dahl story The Bookseller.
- An entry in the blog, My Internet Diary-SECRET DO NOT READ, features a hypothetical scenario that reworks this scam in order to target secular humanists.
- The Braingle website, which features brain teasers, riddles, and mental exercises, has one lateral thinking puzzle entitled “Blackmail”, about a hustler who uses the blackmail version of this scam.
- One of many scams attempted by Bart and Homer in the Simpsons episode "The Great Money Caper", specifically aimed at Ned. It didn't work because Ned Flanders recognized this plot from watching Paper Moon.
- A 1946 article in LIFE magazine claims that there was an increase in this type of Short Con during World War II. Grifters would deliver packages to the families of servicemen and claim they had been ordered by the servicemen who were now in combat. Due to the lack of reliable communication between members of the armed forces and their families at the time, the servicemen didn’t even have to be dead, only out of reach. The families would gladly pay any remaining amount necessary to get the packages they believed their relatives had ordered. Interestingly, the article states that another popular scam was the sale of "bullet-proof" Bibles which became popular after a story began circulating about a soldier who was saved when a Bible stopped a bullet from entering his body.
- In 1982, a gutsy criminal apparently attempted to pull this con while already in prison. He even tried to get the widow to send the money order for the engraved Bible to the prison. The scam failed since the mark did not believe her deceased husband would ever have ordered such a Bible. 
- The con artist, "Dead Man" Hicks, got his nickname from specializing in this scam.
- In a 1941 profile article by John Richmond, con artist Jimmy Lally fondly recalls using this scam.
I’d certainly work myself up feeling sorry for some of those widows. Sometimes I’d find myself crying too. I was terrific, better than John Barrymore