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.
Perhaps 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.
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.