I’m genuinely fascinated by modern death, including spaces, buildings, monuments and material culture. In fact, I’ve written a handful of academic articles on the ‘contemporary archaeology of death’. The ephemeralia of flowers and offerings added to graves and sites of memory – formal and informal – in contemporary landscapes are also of interest to me. Some are carefully created and placed, designed to endure or to facilitate a succession of temporary offerings. From grave-plots to memorial benches, today’s landscape is replete with traces of the dead.
Floral offerings are a form of monetary investment as well as much else. Death ain’t cheap: all of this comes at a cost. The cost of funerals and gravestones is ever rising. Yet it is usually regarded as unseemly to put exhibit how much death costs those that survive, which is perhaps one of the reasons that the funerary industry gets away with the escalation of costs. Costs don’t end with the disposal of the remains and the choice made (for some) to set up a memorial. Visiting the grave is an investment too: time, travel and resources.
Our culture of death and memory is therefore mediated by money and flowers. Many floral arrangements, for example, are expensive and carefully arranged to last. Floral offerings can be adapted to very different architectural and spatial settings – walls, planters, trees, lawns etc. There are also messages for the dead, some sealed in envelopes, suggesting that at least some people regard these offerings as a means of communication with those who have passed away. The very environment of mourning is designed to foster and sustain these floral offerings.
At one crematoria I visited a few months ago (from the pictures, you can guess this was springtime), I observed many carefully lain flowers in bespoke memorial containers or lain on the lawns in foil to preserve their freshness. Floral and other offerings are signs of care and enduring bonds between the living and the dead. Yet some I observed still were packaged straight from the supermarket. A significant minority still had price tags on them.
So how might we interpret the choice of those to leave the prices on floral offerings at cemeteries and crematoria?
- Neglect. Akin to someone giving you a ‘get well soon’ present or a birthday card with the price label still on it,such instances are a sign of laziness, indifference or a complete lack of engagement with proper respect. Even though the offering is made, it is done without due care. It is a deliberate or listless disrespecting of those commemorated: a half-arsed gesture shamefully visible for all to see.
- Lack of guidance. Many mourners might be simply not guided in how to mourn with floral offerings. They might see the offerings left by others and regard theirs as the same without considering how the price tag might look. No-one wants to dictate or patronise mourners. While undertakers, ritual specialists and others might guide mourners in how to behave during funerals, and cemeteries, crematoria and other memorial spaces might be regulated and managed with care, perhaps the mourners here never thought about how prepare and present offerings with price tags.
- Gesture over display. Perhaps the price tag is irrelevant because the act matters more than the material, the placement over the beauty, content over form.
- Monetary mourning. Despite the fact that the individual offerings are not that expensive, this is an overt way of displaying the amount of monetary investment put into the gesture of placing the flowers. This needn’t be a gawdy self-aggrandisement of the giver, but a genuine way of enhancing the connection between the living and the dead through a medium of monetary exchange.
- Emotive intensity. Is the tempo of the gesture more important than its display to future visitors? Are sometimes labels left on because the mourners are too emotionally engaged with their loss to care about price tags, or perhaps some people might be rushing, too upset to wish to linger to arrange the flowers?
- The mnemonics of packaging. A further possibility is that this represents a side-effect of a desire for the flowers to remain ‘packaged’ for presentation – both in terms of security and integrity, as well as convention and authenticity of the offering. It came from a supermarket or florist, it is ‘genuine’, not something home-made and therefore ‘on the cheap’. Maybe for some, it is presented not as a ‘formal gift’, but as a more intimate and incipient act, like bringing home some flowers with the weekly shop. In this regard, the price tag with the packaging might be arranged implies an anticipated unpackaging and arranging. Forestalled and incomplete, this implies that only the spirits of the dead might receive and display themselves the floral offering.
Our funerary culture today is utterly capitalist and monetary, and equally we regard it ‘good taste’ to obscure the costs involved. Looking at the traces of monetary display in crematoria, I wonder if it is so simple to dismiss this as neglect or disrespect, bad taste or ignorance. Might other factors come into play? Or is it simply straightforward and honest?
These are just some thoughts. How might we test between these and other theories?