The History of Flowers and Funerals
Humans have been using flowers to mourn, grieve, and sympathize for millennia. Flowers have been given to express human emotions in every corner of the earth throughout human (and – spoiler alert! - even pre-human) history. But they are especially important when it comes to death. Let’s talk about the history of flowers and funerals.
Before humans even walked the earth, our evolutionary ancestors, the Neanderthals, were using flowers in burial sites as far back as 62,000 B.C., which is now considered the oldest noted human ritual. Although we can only guess at the reasons the Neanderthals used flowers to lay the dead to rest, the reasons for using flowers in burials has evolved over human history.
There was a time, before embalming was developed, where flowers served both as a token of respect, and to cover the odour of the body. US President Andrew Jackson, for instance, had a large mound of flowers surrounding him. This wasn’t a show of loving devotion, but to allow mourners to sit through the service without being overwhelmed by the smell. Both the visual beauty of flowers and their lovely scent have been important in rituals throughout history, but usually for less stomach-turning reasons.
Flowers have also been used as a symbol to show human emotion during times and in cultures when expressing grief wasn’t acceptable. In Victorian times, for instance, flowers became the silent language of grief for those who lost a loved one. Red carnations would be a flower you might choose if you had deep admiration for the deceased; gladiolas might be picked if the person was especially involved in their community.
It is also important to remember that specific cultures and beliefs have different customs around flowers. For instance, a Buddhist ceremony would call for white – never red – flowers. You wouldn’t bring or send flowers at all to a typical Hindu funeral.
In most cultures, however, flowers can be a potent reminder of the beauty – and temporariness – of life. They make what is a sad occasion a little brighter. They express love, sympathy, and even the cycle (and fragility) of life. Clearly, they don’t take away sadness, but they add softness, beauty, and a little bit of light. There is something about being surrounded by flowers in a time of darkness - about seeing an outpouring of love for the deceased - that buoys the spirit.
Flowers mean many things to many people, and they signify something different for different occasions. But they have always been important for death, burial, and funerals. In our moments of greatest emotional upheaval, flowers have always been important to humans.