Memorial Day rolls around in May every year, prompting annual visits to family gravesites with decorations in hand. Folks fill their cars with the best blooms from their gardens—peonies, irises and a few precious roses bound with twine and filled with sprigs of sage and artemisia.
Some pack milk jugs full of water, odd assortments of foil-wrapped tin cans and sometimes even bring a picnic lunch. And young and old, they make a day of it, in the cemeteries where loved ones who have passed on are buried. In doing so, they repeat a ritual their parents and grandparents performed before them, often using the same kinds of flowers, to renew important ties between two worlds. For a few days, the old country cemeteries, often overgrown, look well-tended again, even merry.
A legal holiday in most states, Memorial Day was named a holiday officially in 1868 as a Civil War commemorative. Prior to that it was celebrated by some as Decoration Day. Now, all war dead are remembered, as well as other deceased family members. In part, this holiday helped bring flowers back into the cemeteries, and to funeral services, too, particularly in the northeastern United States where Puritans had frowned on such frivolities.
Flowers in Memoriam
According to Jack Goody in The Culture of Flowers (Cambridge University Press, 1993), the Puritans of colonial New England were following a practice that traces to the 5th century in Europe when flowers at funerals or on graves were taboo. Because they were associated with pagan worship, early Christians banned flowers from all occasions. Later, Catholic and Anglican church members brought blooms back into the houses of worship as a way to communicate with the divine world, but the Puritans’ determination to avoid them remains evident in their old cemeteries today.
In post-Elizabethan England, floral gravesite tributes slowly made an evergreen comeback. Cypress garlands began to decorate upper class graves, Goody says, while rosemary and bay served more common folk and blossoms soon followed.
By the dawn of the 20th century in the United States, flowers were mainstays at funerals, and for Memorial Day. Mostly, funeral flowers were greenhouse grown, and Memorial Day tributes were homemade bouquets right out of Grandmother’s garden, but that wasn’t always the case. In the spring of 1909 in Ottawa, Kansas, Alice Washburn died following her daughter Hazel’s wedding. Washburn’s husband, George, an architect who built 15 Kansas courthouses, held his wife’s funeral at their home, still decorated with Hazel’s wedding flowers.
Washburn’s parlor funeral was routine for the day, but her floral tributes, fresh blooms from the family garden, were not. Deborah Barker, director of the Franklin County, Kansas, Historical Society in Ottawa, researched Washburn’s home funeral and others of the era, and she notes most turn-of-the-century funeral photos show commercially grown blooms such as carnations, stocks and roses, often as accents to a photograph of the “dear departed,” or to the corpse itself.
“I’m always astonished,” Barker said of the flower varieties, “but obviously they had greenhouses to grow them in.” Roses, carnations and stocks also fit with the era’s popular “Language of Flowers,” which hailed from the Orient and had been embraced in Europe before sweeping this country.
Geraldine Laufer, in her book Tussie-Mussies (see Bookshelf, Page 53) translates the floral meanings: Roses, depending on their color, could mean love, beauty, devotion, sweetness of character, accomplishments, perfection, dignity and immortality, as well as sorrow, martyrdom and the sentiment, “Your sorrows, mine!” Stocks were symbols of lasting beauty, and carnations stood for such qualities as admiration and love.
According to the 1868 Ladies Floral Calendar, published by B.W. Woodward, the tea rose, which was then a new variety of flower, stood for “always loved,” and 10-week stocks stood for “promptitude,” but yellow carnations signified “disdain.”
In 1882, Mrs. George M. Mack explained appropriate funeral flower colors in her book A Treasure of Use and Beauty, published in St. Louis and Detroit. White, red and purple blooms were to be mixed with green leaves and running vines. The green and white signified immortality; red stood for the redeeming blood of Christ; and purple hailed “the Supreme Majesty of the Eternal King.”
Funeral bouquets “should be composed of white flowers, with the exception of a little Heliotrope at the top and a few ferns and geranium leaves at the bottom,” she wrote. For elaborate arrangements, daisies, calla lilies, camellias, carnations, sweet alyssum, candytuft, tuberoses, hyacinths, immortelle, roses, violets, pansies and geranium leaves were all used.
Popular designs, according to Mack, included the cross, a harp with a broken string, which symbolized the deceased, a broken column, anchor, sickle, pillar and star. “A new and very beautiful device,” she added, “was ‘The Gates Ajar’,” which debuted at the funeral of the assassinated U.S. president James Garfield in 1881 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Nancy Smith, managing editor of Mother Earth News magazine, writes and gardens at her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.