Most of us in the funeral profession have been there—the headache of funeral flowers. Not to be negative, but I used to get very frustrated with the responsibility of handling funeral flowers. The routine always seemed the same. I would have on a new suit and when transporting flowers, I always damaged my suit either with water, that green mushy stuff they position the flowers in, the flower pollen stains or from my own blood when my fingers got stuck by the sharp wire mesh to which they hook the flowers.
Then, of course, there was the flower pedal challenge: flower pedals in the garage, in the funeral coach, in the station wagon, in the visitation room, in the chapel, on the steps of the church, down the aisle of the church, all around the church, along the route to the grave and all around the grave. I spend a tremendous amount of my time as a funeral director picking up flower pedals and hiding them in my suit pockets. The dry cleaner always knew my suits because my pockets overflowed with dried up flower pedals!
There were flower pedals everywhere on funerals. It seemed to me as if the great big mums had a secret explosive device in them—planted by angry, vengeful florists—that would detonate simply by a funeral director looking at them. Wham, boom – 10,000 mum pedals on the floor and two minutes before the service was to begin to boot!
Of course, this attitude was one of immaturity and limited vision on my part, for I was unaware and ignorant of the importance of funeral flowers. I was ignorant of the history, development and benefit of flowers. This article was written to help correct my deficiencies concerning this subject. The hope is that this information will help other funeral professionals.
II. THE OLDEST ACTIVITY
The oldest tribute, the oldest form of memorialization, the oldest act of mourning is the arrangement and placement of flowers around the dead. This ancient activity was well documented by Dr. Ralph Solecki in his famous excavation in the Shandiar Cave in Northern Iraq.
In 1951 Dr. Solecki discovered several burial sites in the Shandiar Cave. Eventually his discovery would gain entrance into the Guiness Book of World Records as the oldest form of religious activity in human burial. In any event, during Solecki’s archeological dig, he submitted soil samples from each grave to Mme. Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, a paleobotanist from Paris, France, for pollen analysis. Under her microscope, she found pollen and flower fragments from at least 8 species of flowers. These flowers represented mainly small, brightly-colored wildflowers. She recognized relatives of the grape hyacinth, bachelor’s-button, hollyhock and a yellow-flowering groundsel. Mme. Leroi-Gourhan declared that the burials took place 62,000 B.C. and that is was no accident of nature that the pollen was deposited so deep in the cave. Neither birds nor animals could have carried flowers in such a manner in the first place and, in the second place, they could not possibly have deposited them directly on a burial site. Therefore, she concluded that someone 62,000 years ago had roamed the mountainside in the mournful task of collecting flowers for a funeral tribute.
III. IN A FLOWER GARDEN
Throughout the ages, humankind has equated death with sleep and this repose, or sleep, was usually in a garden full of flowers. “May God receive all our souls among his holy flowers,” Turpin (“Song of Roland”) asks God over the bodies of his barons. Similarly the ancient figure of Roland prays that “He will let them lie in holy flowers.” This ancient verse contains both aspects of the condition that followed death, namely lying down or the sleep without sensation, and holy flowers or the garden in bloom. The garden of flowers equated into visions of paradise in olden times, the images of “cool meadows” of Virgil’s “Elysium, “watered by steams” or from the garden that the Koran promised to believers.
If paradise was full of flowers and meadows, in ancient thought Hell was the opposite. In Homer’s Hades there was neither garden nor flowers. Hades—at least the Hades of “Book XI” of the Odyssey—also makes quite clear the absence of floral or any pastoral comforts.
The Prayer Book of Serapion, the Greco-Egyptian liturgical text from the middle of the 4th century, contains this prayer for the dead, “May his spirit rest in a green and tranquil place.”
Thus the words designating paradise are all related to one central concept: the cool garden with an abundance of flowers. As we will see shortly, the funeral profession of the early and mid-20th century identified closely with this floral imagery.
Nowhere in the influential thinking of Western Civilization was the ideal of linking paradise with the garden more prevalent than in the burial of Jesus Christ. Jesus was entombed in a garden, pure and simple. Our cemeteries today often resemble a garden concept like the one where Jesus was entombed. Today people value the floral concept of the pastoral scenes of death in contrast to the mass burials that were witnessed in Nazi Germany. The power of the idea of death being linked to flowers is still easily identifiable.
IV. SYMBOLISM AND FLOWERS
Through history, flowers have been used to symbolize almost every aspect of the life cycle, from birth through death. In death, flowers are used to symbolize how the beauty of creation is temporary and, as sure as the flower must be cut from the stem, so it is with life—we all, too, must have our life cut from the stem, so to speak.
Flowers also have a particular aesthetic value in the face of death, for the beauty of the flower helps balance our emotional response to the sharp contrast of the perceived ugliness of death. Flowers help soften the raw data imagery that death leaves with survivors.
The fragility of life is also symbolized by a flower. Flowers, to be healthy, require the proper condition to grow and expand – just like human beings.
And finally, the color of flowers has a specific symbolism, particularly in religious thought.
- A purple flower is a symbol of penitence and royalty. This floral color is used during the preparatory and penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.
- A white flower is the symbol of joyous and celebrative color of light. This floral color is used during the festive seasons of Christmas and Easter, and on high days during ordinary times.
- A green flower is the symbol of nature in the freshness of growth – hence our green cemeteries. This floral color is used, except on high days, during ordinary times, the seasons after Epiphany Pentecost.
- A red flower is the symbol of fire and blood, and is used on the Day of Pentecost and on other special occasions when the work of the Holy Spirit or the blood of Christ or of martyrs is being commemorated.
- A black flower is the symbol used for Good Friday, though red flowers are also sometimes used.
Flowers, as we have just discussed, help the person think in symbolic terms, which is the way that much of the information concerning death is communicated.
V. PRACTICAL USE OF FLOWERS
From time immemorial, flowers were used to control the offensiveness and obnoxiousness of body decomposition. No doubt this was part of the reason that flowers were used in the Shandiar Cave burials so many centuries ago.
One of the most famous funerals where flowers were used to mask the odor of decomposition occurred in 1874 when President Andrew Johnson was buried. His body was not embalmed, and by the day of the funeral, his body was in such a foul condition that undertaker Lazarus C. Shepard closed the casket and heaped loads of fragrant flowers on top and around the burial receptacle. The fragrance of the flowers hid the odor long enough for the funeral to take place.
VI. “IN THE GARDEN” MOVEMENT
In 1914 C. Austin Miles wrote the famous funeral hymn “In the Garden.”
“I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses.”
“And He walks with me and he talks with me
And He tells me I am His own…”
The hymn stormed the country and became one of the most frequently sung hymns at funerals in the United States. The hymn also began a movement in funeral service whereby the mortuary practices of the country would revolve around the body reposing in the garden.
In face, the movement in Protestant funeral practices in the United States to use the “In the Garden” theme was so strong that funeral homes began to develop facilities that used an indoor garden as the backdrop where the body would repose.
The chapels were actually solariums with waterfalls, plants and flowers, and even live birds flying around inside. And, seen in these funeral home ads of the 40’s and 50’s, the establishments actually utilized the “In the Garden” name.
VII. FLOWER LADIES
The importance of flowers in funeral services was probably best exemplified by the creation of Midwestern funeral practices of the role of the flower lady. The flower lady was analogous to the pall bearer role, but instead of carrying the casket, this group of women (usually six) would carry the flowers from the place of the funeral to the flower vehicle, and then would assist in setting them up at the cemetery.
Flower ladies were chosen with as great care as the pall bearers were, for they were usually close friends of the family and it was viewed as a distinct honor to be chosen.
The flower lady role eventually subsided as the funeral ritual became less community oriented and people’s lifestyles became more hectic.
VIII. THE CONTEMPORARY VALUE AND BENEFIT OF FLOWERS
In order for funeral professionals to be able to better educate families about the benefit of funeral flowers, the following seven suggestions are made:
- Belief – Your own belief in the value and benefit of funeral flowers will be your greatest asset in presenting this information to families.
- Sentiment – There is a common denominator in sending flowers, in giving to a charity and in supporting one’s church. It is sentiment.
Sentiment is actually a complex organization of ideas, feelings and instincts that are built up in the course of an individual’s experience. Sentiment serves a very vital human need.It should be realized, too, that mankind’s need for sentiment is the basis for the development of many of our funeral traditions. There is a great deal of insight in the remark made by the famous English statesman Gladstone. He said, “Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”
- Significance of Flowers – Flowers are sent to funerals for several reasons. Flowers are a means of expression. It is often difficult for those mourning a death to put feelings into words. Flowers are a visual expression of love, sympathy and respect. They are a means of lending support and sharing the burden of grief.In addition to sending flowers to the funeral service, there is a growing trend to send flowers to the home of the bereaved after the service. In addition, some people send flowers to the church in memory of the deceased.Flowers create a background of warmth and beauty that adds to the dignity and consolation of the funeral service. Those who have attended services without flowers have expressed the feeling that something was missing … that the funeral was depressing.
- Freedom of Expression – Families deserve the right of complete freedom of expression at time of death. People are not cut from the same spiritual mold. Therefore, they should be free to express themselves in the manner that best conveys their emotions. Any expression that is the result of dictate ceases to be an act of the heart.
- The Tradition – Americans traditionally have expressed their respect for the dead, and sympathy for the bereaved, by sending flowers. This long-standing custom helps people express their innermost feelings. Funeral flowers are for the living and the dead. They are tokens of respect for the deceased.
- Atmosphere – Flowers create a background of warmth and beauty adding to the dignity and consolation of the funeral service. Following the service, the bereaved are left with an indelible impression of the funeral. Flowers are a very important item in this lasting impression for they directly affect the warmth and comfort generated by the “memory picture.”The more comforting the memory picture, the more easily it is recalled by the bereaved, and the more vivid is the reinforcement of reality and actualization of loss. Flowers do not wither and die in the mind of the bereaved. They are recalled time and again as indelible memories.
- Spiritual Significance – Flowers are symbolic not only of love and sympathy, but also of eternity and immortality. Flowers help minister to the bereaved by giving testimony of the love and understanding of human beings. The life of flowers is fleeting. They attest to the transitory life of man. There is profound religious symbolism in the very fact that flowers do not last forever.
- “Please Omit” – “Please omit flowers” and “in lieu of flowers” notices occur from time to time in various publications. These requests generally originate with the family, who has been influenced by well-meaning friends or organizations.
There are many implications in such a request. The obituary is actually an announcement of the death and an invitation to attend the funeral. It is not considered good taste to openly anticipate a gift and accompany an invitation with a dictatorial statement that only certain kinds of remembrances are acceptable.
A “PO” or “in lieu of” request causes embarrassment to friends. Some ignore the request and send flowers, causing embarrassment to those who heeded the request.
Many people resent being told how to express their sympathy. They like to decide for themselves whether to send flowers, make a donation, send a card or extend a helping hand. There is a place for both flowers and charity in our modern day world and it is important that we place each in its proper perspective.
The funeral meets the bereaved’s need for support. Death throws people into despair and depression by separating them from one who has provided love, companionship and security. The funeral and our funeral customs provide the means by which those close to him can give their support and share his suffering.
The funeral period provides for the expression of sorrow. Only through talking out the past can the bereaved person realize the extent of the relationship with the deceased, and accept the loss and suffering. Only through weeping and talking to good listeners can they release their grief and their feelings of guilt and hostility. Experts in grief therapy believe that grief can be expressed best through rites, rituals and ceremonies. The ceremony deals primarily with intellectual concepts and does not fully engage the bereaved’s feelings in the patters of community support that are psychologically beneficial. Flowers, though, express the inexpressible—they are symbolic.
People have traditionally expressed their respect for the dead and sympathy for the bereaved by sending flowers. This custom is one of longstanding and it has served people as a means through which they can express their feelings.
There are three points to be stressed in connection with the tradition of funeral flowers:
- The role of flowers is both symbolic and aesthetic. They add great value to the richness and meaning of the ritual.
- Flowers represent sympathy extended to the bereaved.
- Flowers are sent both to the living and to the dead. Flowers are sent to the living as comfort and they are sent as tokens of respect for the deceased.