I call myself lucky enough to not have had many friends or family members pass, but I attended a funeral last week in northern Manitoba and naturally, it got me thinking about plants. Or, flowers I should say. Because I have not been to many funerals or wakes — rules, etiquettes, and traditions are not something I would say I am the most up-to-date on.
Seeing the funeral hall filled with flowers, as well as the family’s home, made me wonder if there is a reason why we give flowers to hurting loved ones and why we lay wreaths at a grave site.
I am sure I will not be able to answer what flowers mean to every different culture and group but from a fairly general viewpoint, I did find out what some different flowers represent, their colours, and why people lay wreaths down.
I assumed wreaths were used instead of vases or jars to hold flowers simply for their convenience. It would be easier to hang a wreath on a stone cross or lay it flat on the ground than it would be to stand a jar up and hope it doesn’t topple over. According to flowersandsympathy.com, wreaths and flower garlands have been around almost as long as humans have. There is even evidence of the earliest civilizations using flowers as decoration and funeral blessings.
“In the ancient Greek and Roman world, wreaths of leaves or flowers were a sign of honour. They would be worn by leaders, poets, priests, and other important members of society at celebrations,” said the site, adding that that is why we see portraits of Julius Caesar with a garland of laurel wreaths on his head.
In the Victorian era (1837 to 1901), florists developed what flowersandsympathy.com calls the language of flowers. Different colours and stages of a flower held different meanings and every bloom had its own message.
“The language of flowers was applied to funeral wreaths, too. Victorian funeral wreaths were usually built on a framework of cypress or willow branches because those trees symbolized mourning and sadness,” said the site.
Although we still recognize wreaths as a powerful symbol of our emotions, today most people no longer speak the language of flowers. The choice and colour of the flower may represent our feelings but the wreath’s shape shows that we are honouring the deceased. To some, a circular wreath represents eternal life or the cycle of life and death.
At a funeral green flowers signify renewal, wellness and nature. White stands for reverence, purity, eternal love and elegance. Yellow flowers signify friendship, warmth and hope. Pink signifies compassion, innocence and grace. Purple represents respect, sorrow, admiration and sympathy. Red stands for strength, respect, love and devotion. And finally, blue flowers at a funeral signify sympathy, sadness and peace.
Like the colour of flowers at a funeral, some flower types are more commonly used at funerals that have different meanings. According to eirene.ca, these include:
Gladioli: These flowers represent strength, integrity, and character. This can make Gladioli an uplifting and positive addition to funeral arrangements.
Lilies: This is one of the most common traditional flower choices. Lillies are synonymous with the soul of the deceased and innocence and renewal. But different colour lilies have slightly different meanings and purposes. White lilies are often a good choice for religious services. They symbolize purity and virtue or the soul’s return to a state of innocence. Pink lilies symbolize sympathy and are a good gift to a grieving family.
Roses: In general, a rose signifies love and respect; however, the symbolism can change slightly depending on the colour. The colours take on the symbolism mentioned above, but specific colours may also be better for a particular relationship. For example, red roses symbolize deep and lasting love, so this would be more suitable for the death of someone close to you. In contrast, a yellow rose may be better suited for the death of a friend.
Carnations: These are another popular flower choice. They last a long time and are quite fragrant, making them ideal for multi-day funeral events. Like roses, the significance changes slightly based on the colour. Carnations come in many colours, which can help people to express their feelings more accurately.
Chrysanthemums: These flowers are a great way to bring brightness and warmth to a funeral service. However, the significance can vary depending on background and beliefs. For example, white chrysanthemums symbolize grief in China, Korea, and Japan. In Europe, the roles of these flowers are almost exclusively for funeral arrangements or to be placed on graves.
As much as I hope this list is not needed as we continue forward into 2023, it shows we as people struggle to voice our feelings sometimes and for centuries have looked for other ways to get our points across.