Grave Occasions

Grave of E.A. Poe

A mysterious person, known as the “Poe Toaster,” has visited the grave of Edgar Allan Poe every January 19 since 1949. Because the visitor has been arriving on Poe’s birthday for 58 years, it is assumed that he represents a tradition carried on by a series of Poe admirers. Each year, however, the ritual is the same: he kneels, drinks a toast of Martel cognac and leaves the half-empty bottle on the grave, along with three red roses.

The Mexican “Day of the Dead” corresponds with the Celtic Samhain and is a pagan tradition that marks the transition from the light half to the dark half of the year. Pagan religions hold that there were ‘corners’ of the year halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, where the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead are stretched thin. On the Day of the Dead, when spirits are thought to be able to leave the afterlife to visit the living, it is customary to scatter the petals of orange marigolds (cempazúchitl; “the flower with four hundred lives”) between the grave of a relative and the house inhabited by the surviving family members; the strong fragrance helps the dead find the way home.

Theosophist, activist and writer Annie Besant wrote of a custom in Yorkshire: the hanging of a garland of flowers in the chancel of the church when a girl dies unmarried. The fact that the wreath was placed in the chancel, and that it was considered unlucky to carry away a piece of the ribbon with which the blossoms were tied, and the still more significant fact, that as the wreath decayed, the pieces were reverently buried in the churchyard, indicates that it was looked upon as an offering to the dead, rather than a sign of condolence with the living.

Coffin-basket-Church-Garland_Sunflowers-1024x768Perhaps because flowers are such an exuberant representation of life—they are the reproductive organs of the plant—they often have a prominent place in the rituals of death, both at funerals and at the graveside. This is not, however, unanimously the case. Flowers are not appropriate at an Orthodox Jewish funeral, for example. They are strongly discouraged at all Jewish funerals because they wither in a few days time, reminding the family of their loss. Catholic churches may not allow flowers in the church, insisting that they remain at the funeral home, but many Protestant churches allow them.

The flowers that are sent to a funeral are emphatically for the living and are given in sympathy. In other words, the flowers are not about death, but rather about life going on in spite of death. One can consult florist after florist and perhaps the only feature that a flower arrangement that is to sit next to a casket will have in common is that they are large. Caskets are large; flower arrangements must not be dwarfed by the casket. If one is sending an arrangement to the funeral parlor or the church (if that is culturally appropriate), then size matters.

Grave of Marilyn Monroe

If the arrangement is going to the family home, then it is less about size and much more personal. It has become common for the contents of an arrangement to reflect the tastes of the living relative or the proclivities of the deceased. In the former case, if the mother or spouse of the deceased is well known to enjoy lilies, then sending lilies is the thing. If the deceased was one of those people who reliably exclaimed at the beauty of fields of sunflowers and insisted on stopping the car to buy an armload at each sighting, then rounding up a bouquet of Helianthus would be a suitable commemoration.

Graveside flowers, unlike those at the funeral, are for the deceased. Joe DiMaggio famously had roses sent to the grave of Marilyn Monroe twice a week for two decades, until he himself passed away.


A Rose Is A Rose

Ring around the rosie
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, Ashes
All fall down

children dancing
Ring around the rosie

This old nursery rhyme goes with a children’s game that involves standing in a circle and holding hands, skipping in a circle and then falling down on the last line. The supposed connection of the words to the bubonic or black plague is apparently without substance. Although the words first appeared in print during the Victorian Era, they were associated with the well-known tune in the 18th century.

Once the false image of people dying of the plague is dispelled, we can actually picture a group of children skipping around a rose bush, their pockets actually full of posies. But what is a posy?

It is not a specific type of flower, but rather refers to a small bouquet of flowers that is either held or pinned to one’s clothing. Other names for it include a “nosegay” or a “tussie-mussie” (or tussle-mussle). In other words, the children in the nursery rhyme may very well have picked a bunch of flowers from the rose bush, stuffed them in their pockets, grabbed each others hands, formed a circle and started to dance and sing.

If we are talking about any more than two or three children, we are probably not talking about a tea rose bush. Wild roses are either bushes or climbers. Their flowers come in many colors, but are all five-petaled. Many fruit trees are in the rose family (Rosaceae), including apples, cherries, plums and peaches.

Cultivation of rose species is ancient, done for thousands of years by the Chinese and known in European history from representations of non-wild types in Roman frescoes. Cultivated roses are divided into two broad categories: “Old Garden Roses” and “New Garden Roses.”

The familiar rose so often sent by the dozen, stood dramatically alone in a bud vase or pinned to a lapel, is a hybrid tea rose, a “New Garden Rose.” These were developed in the late 19th century by crossing “Tea rose” with “Hybrid Perpetuals,” both of which are “Old Garden Roses.”

The Tudor rose

Old Garden Roses include the “Alba” roses, which are a cross between the wild Rosa arvensis, the field rose, and Rosa alba, a cross between R. canina (the dog rose) and R. gallica (the French rose). “Alba Semi-plena” is known as the “White Rose of York,” the symbol of the House of Lancaster, one half of the Plantagenet struggle for the English throne in the 16th century.

The struggle was known as the “War of the Roses” because the House of Tudor had as its symbol a red rose, thought to be R. gallica officinialis. It is interesting that as the two houses were both descended from the same line, so were their roses. Moreover the shared ancestor was the French rose and the Plantagenet line originated with the Norman French invader William the Conqueror.

The European Old Garden Rose varieties tended to bloom only once a year and to have fragrant blossoms. The “China roses,” introduced to Europe in the 18th century, bloomed repeated through the year, but had little scent and less robust foliage. Crossing China roses with R. multiflora, another East Asian species, produced the New Garden Rose class called “Polyantha” (many flowered). These shrubs could be literally covered with blooms for several months.

They are just the sort of plant that you might picture small children gathering flowers from, stuffing them in their pockets and then dancing around. The polyanthas first appeared in France in the late 19th century. The “Ring Around the Rosy” words first appeared in print in 1881 in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose or Old Nursery Rhymes.