Today in many cultures around the world, flower arrangements perform a prominent role in the funeral, memorial, and cremation ceremonies. The historical basis for this practice stretches back into the prehistoric era. Although different societies attach varying symbolic meanings to specific flowers, blossoms frequently hold profound symbolic value. The act of providing or receiving a floral arrangement frequently offers some measure of comfort to grieving people. This article furnishes a brief overview of the use of flowers during the funeral, memorial, and cremation ceremonies,
Flowers: Historically Significant During Burials
Flowers have accompanied funerary rites in many cultures around the world for literally thousands of years. In fact, today archaeologists have documented burial sites in which prehistoric people apparently interred flowers with deceased loved ones. Grave sites dating to 60,000 BC in Shanidar Cave (now located in the modern nation of Iraq) have revealed Neanderthal skeletons covered in a layer of pollen.
Of course, many different ancient societies relied upon varying burial and funerary customs. These practices often differed from one region to another. For example, in the ancient world, many wealthy Egyptians embalmed the dead. Priests used elaborate rituals to mummify bodies and preserve them in burial tombs, frequently hidden underground or in remote locations. By contrast, ancient Greeks by 800 BC came to rely primarily upon funeral pyre cremations as a common funeral practice. Some ancient Chinese rulers, such as Emperor Qin Shi Huang, constructed elaborate underground tombs.
Although burial customs often differed from one place to another, it appears likely many early people utilized plants (including flowers) during parts of funeral rituals. Today, some authorities surmise practical considerations played some role in this practice. During the era before refrigeration, remains sometimes began decomposing during the embalming process: the presence of strongly scented floral blossoms would have reduced odors and permitted funeral workers to perform elaborate embalming rituals like those conducted by the ancient Egyptians. While the symbolic value of plants and flowers used in the earliest funerary practices may remain obscure today, it seems possible blossoms also played an important role in some burial rites in certain places.
Symbolism Associated With Funeral, Memorial, and Cremation Floral Arrangements
Flowers continue to figure prominently as gift items used at many modern funerals, memorial, and cremation services. These displays seek to bring comfort to grieving people. Fragile, yet lovely and fragrant, blossoms remind mourners that every life holds profound beauty.
Today in many parts of North America and Europe, the gift of cut flowers or potted plants at funerals represents an expression of sympathy for grieving people. Some social activists have objected to the widespread use of cut flowers on the grounds the floral industry allegedly violates “fair trade” and safe labor practices in some nations, particularly with respect to the use of pesticides.
Yet the custom of sending flowers to express condolences appears well established in Western society. Many international cut flowers providers do not disregard ethical health and safety standards. Writer Amy Stewart in her book Flower Confidential: The Good, The Bad, And The Beautiful in The Business of Flowers (2007) documents the amazing diversity and complexity of the modern global cut flower industry.
(The liberal use of pesticides and fungicides in blossoms shipped across international borders may require florists to exercise safety precautions on the job in preparing floral arrangements with the help of imported products, however.) Within comparatively short spans of time, many of the blooms used in funerary floral arrangements originate in nurseries in one nation, cross an ocean to join a wholesale inventory lot, and then go on sale as retail products in yet a third country. Today customers frequently send floral tributes to funeral homes through flower ordering network services without exercising direct personal control over the composition of the arrangements. A florist typically prepares this product.
Beautiful Flower Symbolism
While the symbolic meaning attached to different types of flowers varies, over the course of time some blossoms have become closely associated with specific sentiments. A rich tradition of lore connects certain flowers with the expression of certain emotions and feelings. Some of the most widely accepted flower symbols may influence the choice of blossoms used in arrangements at funerals. A few of the most popular items include these flowers:
Lilies: Today, lilies frequently occur in funerary floral arrangements. They carry a close association with purity and virtue. As floral gifts, they signify the return of a soul to innocence after death. Many florists include white lily flowers in arrangements sent to a funeral, memorial, or cremation services, and live potted lilies often serve as funeral gifts.
Roses: The use of roses in floral arrangements often connotes specific symbolic values. For example, some florists use only a single rose as an expression of eternal love for a deceased person. Larger arrangements may express a variety of emotions based upon the color of the blossoms. Red roses indicate respect and bravery. White roses may represent innocence, youth, and spirituality. Yellow roses usually signify strong ties of friendship or camaraderie.
Carnations: Carnations often appear in professionally prepared floral arrangements due to their immense color variations. In funeral arrangements, their symbolic meanings vary. White carnations represent pure love. Red carnations denote strong affection and love. At Christian funerals, pink carnations frequently signify a mother’s love due to a popular symbolic association with the tears of the Virgin Mary.
Violets: Some people include violets in funerary arrangements to express the sentiment the deceased passed away too soon. For this reason, these flowers often appear at a funeral, memorial, or cremation ceremonies for young people.
Chrysanthemums: These blossoms figure prominently in funerary arrangements in Europe and Asia. In many Asian nations, including China, Korea, and Japan, they symbolize the grieving process and signify sorrow over a loss.
Daffodils: Bright yellow daffodils carry strong connotations of good fortune and luck. In the context of funerary arrangements, this flower may express a new beginning for the soul of the deceased in the Afterlife. Mourners sometimes give living daffodil arrangements as condolence gifts to help comfort grieving family members of a deceased person.
Tulips: Tulips also traditionally express powerful sentiments of renewal and rejuvenation. Like daffodils, tulips as living potted plants frequently serve as bereavement gifts intended to convey sentiments of support for grieving people. They offer a recognition that survivors will eventually overcome their sorrow.
Gladioli: The use of these flowers in a funeral, memorial, or cremation arrangements expresses deep respect for the deceased’s character and moral values.
Forget Me Nots: These delicate blue flowers typically represent a sentiment of eternal remembrance when used in funerary arrangements. They convey the idea that a mourner will always think of a departed loved one.
Orchids: Orchids occur in a great variety of forms, and some varieties prove exceedingly challenging to cultivate. Yet like forget me nots, these lovely blooms carry a close association with enduring remembrance. As live potted plants, white or pink ones sometimes serve as bereavement gifts for a deceased person’s surviving loved ones.
Hyacinth: The use of hyacinth blooms in floral arrangements at funerals, memorials, or cremation services generally connotes a profound sense of loss and grief. The association stems from Greek mythology.
Camellia: Lovely, symmetrically formed camellia blossoms display great beauty. They serve as expressions of respect for the refinement and grace of a deceased person when used in funerary floral displays.
Hydrangea: Families who have lost loved ones sometimes send this flower as a gesture of thanks to people who supported them emotionally after their loss. The plant signifies sincerity and gratitude.
Providing or Receiving Funerary Floral Arrangements
Flower arrangements often contribute to the setting during funerals, memorials, and cremation services. Religious organizations, funeral homes, and mourners all sometimes furnish these displays. In some cases, people who make advanced final arrangements may also ask a mortuary to obtain flowers to place in reception areas, around the casket, or on the grave site. Individual preferences usually control these types of decorative measures.
In some places, including parts of the Midwestern United States, designated flower carriers remove floral arrangements from funeral services in a group to a vehicle to transport to the grave site during funeral processions. Funeral directors then display these gifts around the grave during the process of burying the casket. The protocols followed at different locations sometimes vary with respect to the use of flowers during internment.
Solace for the Grieving in a Time of Mourning
Why do so many people employ flowers as decorative elements during funerals, memorials, and cremation ceremonies? One important reason relates to the need to express grief over the loss of a deceased person. Giving flowers also permits mourners to demonstrate sympathy and respect for surviving loved ones of the deceased. These basic emotions find an important outlet through the process of furnishing flower arrangements.
Tradition may also figure prominently in the use of some funerary flowers. By adhering to rituals (including the use of flowers to decorate a service), some people find a constructive way to channel strong emotions, such as despair and anger over a loss. Individuals who may experience difficulty verbalizing their feelings have an opportunity to express their pain symbolically through the gift of floral arrangements.
The use of flowers at funerals, memorials, and cremation services also performs an important social function. Businesses patronized by the deceased might encounter challenges speaking to a family member grieving over a deep loss; they can share empathy with these individuals in a socially acceptable way by sending a floral arrangement to the funeral. Consequently, commercial enterprises sometimes employ flowers as a tribute to a deceased person.
Displaying Flowers at a Funeral, a Memorial, or a Cremation Service
Considerable variations exist in the formal flower displays used around the world today. Yet flowers do still offer an important way to express powerful emotions in many different cultures. Beautiful, transient, and frequently fragrant, they may help establish a more comfortable setting for services conducted after the loss of a loved one. They bring some measure of solace and ritual to people during one of life’s most difficult experiences, the death of a beloved human being.