The art of gifting flowers is something that has existed across cultures as far back as the Stone Age, their beauty and symbolism providing both tribute and comfort to those who have lost loved ones. Across times, cemetery florals have played a significant role in death care, evolving as we have. In this post, we’ll explore the rich history of cemetery florals, examining how flowers have been used throughout time to honor and remember the dead.
Ancient Times – Egypt & Greece
Flowers were abundant in Ancient Egypt; their beauty fascinated Ancient Egyptians, who believed they possessed sacred and symbolic qualities. They also followed elaborate funeral practices, which they believed allowed them to achieve immortality after death. These practices allowed the person to use all their senses in the afterlife with different elements to symbolize different beliefs.
One essential part of these offerings left for the deceased, were stems of papyrus, intended to symbolize resurrection. Bouquets made of papyrus stalks with their flower umbels were presented to the deceased, both on the day of burial, but also during any festive occasions.
In Ancient Greece, greenery was also used to honor the dead, though rather than bouquets of flowers, Grecians used wreaths of celery to show their love for the fallen.
The celery of Ancient Greece was different to that of today; with thin stalks and bitter flavoring, Ancient Greeks associated its strong smell and dark color with both the Underworld and death. There are many different theories why the dead needed these garlands, one being that they were given to add dignity and luster to the proceedings. This association eventually grew so strong, that a phrase that translates to “to need celery” was used when someone was close to death.
The Victorians had many rituals and customs for death and no qualms about thinking about it; some historians even say they were obsessed with death. Part of this obsession started when Queen Victoria’s husband died, the pain affecting her so deeply that for the following 40 years, she wore only black in mourning. Death was a common and constant part of life in Victorian times, and they believed that death was a transition between this world and the next.
Victorians are known for their excess, and their use of flowers is no exception, with it said that these flowers were an appropriate symbol for the excess of Victorian funerals. Wreaths were hung on the outside of doors, often constructed of laurel leaf with black ribbon decorating it. Victorians tended to spend a lot of money on funerals; a great deal of this would be on flowers to memorialize those who had passed.
Wealthy family members of important figures who passed would receive lavish funeral processions with glass-walled hearses. Decorated with ornate floral arrangements inside, the hearses would parade through the streets for onlookers to see. Once the funeral ended, these arrangements would then be brought home, becoming memorial displays inside the home.
Floral arrangements also grew in popularity due to slightly more practical reasoning. Before embalming became common practice, the smell of a 3-day-old corpse would be incredibly strong. As such, flowers and candles were placed surrounding the body to mask the odor during funerals.
World War I
Long associated with beauty and femininity, those who collected flowers were different during the First World War. Men would gather flowers alongside the battlefield as a way to honor the dead and decorate their resting places. As conflict eventually came to an end, the red poppies that bloomed became vivid reminders of the tolls of war.
At home, the scarcities of war rationing affected the supply of fresh flowers. As a result of this, people began turning to artificial flowers to honor their loved ones who had passed away. Flowers made of silk or paper were used to create wreaths, bouquets, and other arrangements to adorn graves and honor the lives of those who had died during the war.
Even when the war came to an end, this trend continued, the use of artificial flowers continuing as a way of paying tribute to those who died. This change reflected some of the broader cultural and social changes that took place as a result of the war. With artificial flowers, people were able to create lasting tributes that were both beautiful and enduring, even in the aftermath of the devastation brought on by the war. This also created a revenue stream for wounded soldiers who couldn’t return to their jobs before the war but were able to create these flowers even with limited mobility.
Today the trend of artificial flowers lives on, most well-known with red poppies as an enduring symbol of the First World War. Most commonly worn in Commonwealth countries, the iconic poppy is often worn on days of remembrance, while poppy wreaths are laid at war memorials, particularly those from World War One.
Today, cemetery florals are still an important part of death care and memorialization. While losing a loved one is just as challenging as ever, sympathy or funeral flowers offer a show of love and support. Flowers are used to decorate the top of caskets and to bring warmth and color to chapels. Funeral wreaths and casket sprays are the most common arrangements used, and these are often chosen by the family.
Flowers are often chosen by what the loved one liked best, though sometimes traditional floral language is used to help decide between options. White lilies are a popular choice, symbolizing sympathy, and innocence. Carnations are a fragrant, long-lasting flower and another option with growing popularity. White carnations symbolize pure love, with pink symbolizing remembrance, and red evoking affection.
Remembrance flowers are also something given year-round rather than just at the time of death. Often anniversaries and special events can be just as difficult for those experiencing loss, and remembrance flowers are a wonderful way to honor those who have passed away. Technology can be especially helpful in facilitating this, with some cemeteries able to send out automated reminders on special days like Mother’s Day, or on birthdays or anniversaries of the deceased.
Though flower gifting has shifted in some ways over the centuries, much of the sentiments originally associated with these practices remain. While there are countless ways to memorialize a loved one or to show respect for those who have passed, floral arrangements are a wonderful mainstay of tradition.
If you would like to discover more about automating floral reminders for your cemetery, we would love to help.