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Flowers and death

The concept of flowers placed with and around the deceased is a form of mourning that has some long roots. As a death doula, I am always curious about the origins of traditions, so I read a few articles (see sources) and wanted to share this history.

There is some conflicting evidence indicating that the earliest confirmed use of flowers at the funerals/burials of human beings. One source suggests it occurred in Raqefet Cave, located in Mt. Carmel, Israel, some 14,000 years ago when the survivors there used flowers to line the graves of the deceased.

Another source suggested that it was Dr. Ralph Solecki in 1951, during his famous excavation in the Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq. Dr. Solecki discovered several burial sites there and uncovered pollen and flower fragments from multiple species of wildflowers that were later discovered to have been there since 62,000 B.C. Soil samples determined that these flowers were placed on the burial site, marking them as the first flowers to have been used for a funeral. This discovery was eventually recorded in record books as the world’s oldest form of human ritual.

Ever hear the rhyme “Ring around the Rosie, A pocket full of posies”? Flowers as far back as the 1600s were used to cover up the stench of the deceased in London’s bubonic plague. The posies were flower petals plague doctors showered on their patients, helping ward off the smell of death.

Skip ahead over the next few centuries and we have the art of embalming that is being developed and refined. Again, flowers were used to coverup the smell of death from the decaying bodies for those who wished to pay their respects.

There’s also this story from “In 1874, President Andrew Jackson was buried, and his body had not been embalmed. This meant that by the time his funeral was to take place, his remains had long since begun the process of decomposition, leading to an overwhelming and offensive odor. The president's decomposing corpse was so powerfully pungent that the undertaker, Lazarus C. Shepard, filled the coffin with flowers and shut the lid. The actions of the undertaker thankfully covered the scent of rotting flesh long enough for a proper funeral to take place.” Perhaps the modern tradition of casket sprays (that remain in the coffin/casket) sprung out of this event?

If the phrase “In lieu of flowers” or its equivalent is not included in the obituary and the family welcomes floral tributes, there are a few choices. Standing Sprays, Crosses, Hearts, and Wreath arrangements are the most favourable for display around the casket or casket. Baskets and bouquets are best sent directly to the person’s home, not the funeral home. Florist shops are knowledgeable about flower languages and can guide anyone in creating the perfect arrangement to suit your budget and vision.

Some religions do not incorporate flowers as part of their funeral traditions. For example, sending a flower arrangement to a Jewish funeral is not considered an appropriate gesture of sympathy. Islamic funerals can vary in opinion; thus, it is customary to ask the family or their religious leader first before making floral arrangements.

Other religions have strict guidelines for floral arrangements. Asian funerals generally feature white or yellow chrysanthemums and avoid any red flower. Buddhist funerals also consider the inclusion of red flowers as bad funeral etiquette.

In conclusion, I hope that this blog gave you some insights into the rich history of flowers and their long association with aspects of the death and funerals from the ancient past to modern times.

resources used to support this blog

Nadel D, Danin A, Power RC, et al. Earliest floral grave lining from 13,700-11,700-y-old Natufian burials at Raqefet Cave, Mt. Carmel, Israel. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(29):11774–11778. doi:10.1073/pnas.1302277110 Meaningful ways to repurpose funeral flowers “History of Funeral Flowers”

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