For most people, flowers and funerals are invariably linked. Caskets are decked in wreathes and bouquets are left on graves to commemorate birthdays and other special days. sympathy and condolence, but this was not always the case.
In ancient times a lot of the flowers now associated with death and funerals held special significance in their mortuary rituals, but the Hebrew and early Christian religions forbade funeral flowers as they saw them as pagan practices. While this has carried on until this day in Jewish ceremonies it gain favour in the Christian world over the centuries. A reason for this might be that while Jewish funerals always take place within a day or two of death, in Celtic counties they continues to hold Wakes to watch over the dead until the funeral. They also placed flowers in the coffin and around the room for their beauty and fragrance during the vigil, to improve the mood of both the living and the dead and to hide any unpleasant smells.
The earliest images appearing on gravestones were religious or memento mori in nature, but during the 19th century symbolism replaced the stark images from before and Flowers became one of the most common images on Victorian headstones and the vast majority are not there purely as a nice decorative feature. These flowers have symbolic meanings to represent the deceased’s life, age, occupation and beliefs. Each country has some of it’s own symbolism for plants and flowers, this is generally a guide to UK practice.
Plants and Flowers on Headstones Representing Age
The growing stage of the flower seen on the headstone can represent age of death:-
- Bud – a child
- Partial flower – young adult
- Full bloom – Prime of life
- Withered bloom or harvested wheat – a full life
- A break in the stem emphasises the death
Flower Symbolism in Cemeteries
Flower symbolism in cemeteries can be difficult to translate. The average Victorian would have known the Bible and Classical mythology far better than most people today. The symbolic meaning of the plants and trees, also known as floriography, described in these works would have been far better understood back then. An example of this is a gravestone containing Willow, hawthorn and celandine. this can be read as earthly sorrow (willow) with the hope (hawthorn) of future joy (celandine) when the family are reunited in the afterlife.
One of the difficulties deciphering flowers on gravestones is identifying the species. Firstly the lack of colour prevents the most obvious way of distinguishing flowers. As artistic fashion changed, then the standard image of each bloom also shifted. Simplistic images of the 18th Century evolved into lifelike forms in the Victorian era, to the most stylistic images of the Art Deco period.
As with all headstones, the various symbols have to be considered as a whole and it’s important to note that flowers and plants combined have a more significant meaning. Take for example, wheat combined with grapes. These two elements (wheat and grapes) are the raw ingredients of bread and wine, so represent the Sacrament. Roses intertwined with lilies and thorns are symbolic of the stages of life and a life as a whole.
A panel on a tombstone containing several varieties is probable best viewed as having a general meaning such as fruitfulness or beauty. Arranged as a bridal bouquet this symbolises a recent bride or groom.
Fruit on a Headstone
Images of individual fruits on a headstone usually there to represent a religious theme, as covered in the A-Z section. A selection of fruits represents the gifts of the holy spirit from Galatians 5:22+23 ′ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance’.
Identifying Plants and Flowers on Headstones
Due to the lack of colours and artistic interpretations of the stone masons, it can be difficult to identify the species of plant and flower on a headstone. To assist you with identification, Mark has created a Taphophile’s quick guide that can be downloaded here.
Plants and Flowers on Headstones Gallery
The individual symbolic meaning of flowers and plants are listed on the main A to Z headstone meanings page.