History of flowers

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nicci Ball – history of flowers and funerals

Remembering the dead is a fundamental part of the ritual associated with death.

The act of collective remembrance when we gather together at a funeral offers the hope that as long as our loved ones are not forgotten their presence continues through the memories they leave behind.

Flowers and their accompanying symbolism provide a living tribute to the dead, something that past cultures have recognised.

For example there is firm evidence that in Roman times, flowers were used to adorn bodies.

Biblical references

According to legend pink carnations first appeared on earth as Jesus carried the cross. The Virgin Mary shed tears of sorrow and carnations sprang from where her tears fell.

Rosemary takes its name from the Virgin Mary, ‘Rose of Mary,’ and is also associated with remembrance of the dead.

It is believed that when The Virgin Mary was fleeing from Herod’s soldiers she hung her cloak on a rosemary bush and in the morning the flowers had changed from white to blue.

Shakespeare acknowledges this Christian association when Ophelia mourns the death of her father in ‘Hamlet’ and brings rosemary to his funeral. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, you love, remember.’”(Hamlet, 1V.5)

Flowers are also a unifying focal point for conversation and remembrance as their significance often prompts the sharing of memories of the departed and offers comfort to the family.

They can offer hope of renewal and an afterlife as we see in the association of certain flowers with the resurrection of Christ.

Flowers symbolise the natural cycle of death and renewal, on the one hand, and also offer an uplifting and lasting visual image on a day of great sadness.

Neolithic evidence

Christian association with flowers and remembrance is well documented but flowers also pre-date the death of Jesus.

Evidence of pollen has been found in Neolithic burial chambers covering the bodies of the deceased leading to speculation that the use of flowers is an indication that pre-historic man also believed in the possibility of an afterlife.

As well as the visual and spiritual comfort flowers can provide, historically they served a more utilitarian purpose.

Rosemary, associated with The Virgin Mary, also had a practical purpose as its strong smell helped mask the pungent aroma of death.

Throughout history, strongly scented flowers and aromatic herbs were used at funerals and at homes where it was customary to lay out the body before burial.

Victorian practices

In Victorian times where the body of the deceased was laid out at home for many days a large array of floral tributes was a necessity.

The Victorians were responsible for some of the customs we associate with funerals and floral tributes today. Many of the shapes of floral tributes originate largely from this period where the size, shape, colour and sometimes grandeur of the flowers was an important part of paying your respects.

On the streets of London and other towns and cities today it is still possible to see horse drawn hearses adorned with large and heartfelt floral tributes in the shape of ‘mum’ or ‘dad,’ or perhaps a guitar or football depending on the interests of the deceased.

Faith and culture

Although some of the funeral traditions we inherited from the Victorians are still popular, Britain today has a more diverse population with a much wider variety of cultures and faiths.

It is important to remember that in different faiths and cultures, flowers have varying meaning and significance:

  • In the Orthodox Jewish faith floral tributes are forbidden as is the laying or planting of flowers on graves;
  • During Hindu funerals women lay flowers at the feet of the body. It is traditional for visitors to the deceased’s relatives to bring gifts of fruit instead of flowers;
  • Sikh funeral customs permits the sending of flowers;
  • In Islamic funeral rites it is not appropriate for flowers to adorn the body or to be sent to grieving relatives;
  • In Chinese custom the white chrysanthemum is a symbol of lamentation, however in the United States it is regarded as a symbol of happiness and cheerfulness;
  • White is the colour most associated with mourning and flowers, particularly within the Christian tradition, as it is a symbol of Christ’s love.
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