Flowers and Trees for the Dead

Traditionally, flowers are strewn over the graves of loved ones and placed in coffins and in the hands of the dead. Flowers have always been considered a suitable emblem of frail human bodies. The dead were seen as sleeping in the earth for a period, only to rise when the ‘Son of Righteousness’ awakens them at the Day of Judgment. Similarly, flowers were believed to sleep naturally under the frost-bound earth during winter, only to awaken at the first warm touch of the spring sun. This comparison between nature and humankind is alluded to in the Old Testament when the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, ‘Arise and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of herbs’.156 It was customary amongst our pagan ancestors since the earliest times to scatter flowers on unburied corpses. Specific flowers and wreaths also accompanied the dead because of the select powers attributed to some plants in warding off evil. 

In the past, purple and white flowers were considered especially suitable for the dead, and graves were adorned with various types of these coloured flowers, expressing love and respect for the dead. White lilies are traditionally linked with death, which is why they should never be given to the sick or kept indoors as cut flowers. White snowdrops, thought to look like a corpse in a shroud, are still used in funeral wreaths and placed on graves. Roses are also customarily related to death and were already strewn on graves by the ancient Romans. In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, cemeteries are still sometimes referred to as ‘rose gardens’ because of the profusion of these specific flowers. In northern European countries, white roses were placed especially on virgins’ graves, and in the funeral procession of unmarried females, garlands of white paper roses were carried before the coffin.

Similarly, the custom of planting certain types of trees in graveyards was prevalent in early times. The Greeks and Romans used the cypress and the yew, which were indicative of mourning, at burials and in graveyards. Because they attained great age and their foliage was virtually evergreen, these trees were specifically regarded as symbols of immortality. 

The cypress, proverbial for its durability, has always been linked with funerals and graveyards, probably also because its wood was believed resistant to the attack of worms. This is why most of the chests containing Egyptian mummies were made of cypress wood, why the ancient Athenians used it to make coffins specifically for their heroes, and why the doors of St. Peter’s Church in Rome, which have lasted for many hundreds of years, were crafted from cypress wood. Similarly, this wood was also included at English funerals, as expressed by Hilderic Friend in her well-known collection, Flowers and Flower Lore: ‘Cypress garlands are of great account at funerals amongst the gentler sort, but Rosemary and Bayes are used by the commons both at funerals and weddings’.157 

In northern and western Europe, the yew tree’s foliage was specifically associated with religious worship and was popular at burials. This is probably because yew trees live longer than any other species of trees in Europe. They grow to enormous size and many are believed to be more than a thousand years old, which is why they were regarded as a symbol of immortality. 

However, the yew tree is also linked with death. The tree’s association with death is probably because the Greeks and Romans regarded it as highly poisonous. Pliny the Elder tells us the tree is so poisonous that to sleep under it or eat one’s food under it is immediately fatal.158 In Richard II, Shakespeare refers to the yew as ‘the double fatal yew’,159 because the leaves of the yew are poisonous and the wood was traditionally used for making instruments of death, that is, bows. 

The Druids of ancient Britain, France, and Ireland revered the yew as sacred. Therefore, it is likely that the early Christian missionaries preached in the shelter of these trees before the first churches were built next to them. This assumption is based on the fact that many yew trees are much older than the churches built beside them, suggesting that these churches were built in places already devoted to worship near the sacred yew tree. This association continued, and it thus became traditional to plant yew trees in churchyards, so much so, that the yew was considered indispensable in European churchyards. 

Under Edward I (1239-1307), when permission was first given to fell trees in churchyards for building and repairs, yew trees were the only ones left standing because of the superstitious beliefs attached to them. However, because yew trees were popular for making bows, it has also been postulated that they were planted in churchyards specifically because such places were least likely to be desecrated. This created some control in the making of bows, articles of importance to our ancestors before the introduction of gunpowder. The old English yeomanry, regarded as the best and most dreaded archers in Europe, were supplied from the yew tree. Eventually, the constant and universal demand for yew wood caused such a scarcity that under Edward IV (1442-1483), an express act of Parliament directed bowers to make four bows – one each of hazel, ash, and elm and only one of yew wood.

In modern times, funeral flowers can be selected from any colour or type, just as bridal bouquets consisting of white lilies or pure white roses – traditionally flowers of death – are considered suitable. The wonderfully intricate, traditional knowledge accumulated over many centuries, underlying the lore of various attributes, aspects, and characteristics of flowers and trees has been largely forgotten or lost – and perhaps, we are the poorer for it. 


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