vegetal motifs on graves

It is a well-discussed and long-standing dimension of mortuary behaviour, resulting from multiple tendrils of influence from prehistoric, ancient, medieval and post-medieval mortuary and commemorative practice: vegetal (including arboreal and floral) dimensions remain a ubiquitous aspects of our present-day commemorative culture and practices.

Key features previously discussed on this blog include:

  • vegetal motifs upon memorials, and sometimes even vegetal forms of memorials themselves;
  • floral and other vegetal offerings placed upon and around graves, including fresh flowers and potted plants, or flowers or plants installed in memorial pot holders;
  • collective flower-holders are an integral part of gardens of remembrance at crematoria;
  • flowers, bushes and trees operating to construct and maintain the carefully managed garden environments of churchyards, burial grounds, cemeteries and gardens of remembrance and provide environments;
Floral offerings at a crematorium’s garden of remembrance, set within a lawn where snowdrops bloom and daffodils are budding.
  • woodland cemeteries, the connection of plants to the dead is taken one stage further.

    a woodland cemetery
  • informal uses of prominent trees and bushes in the landscape at sites of death (e.g. road-side memorials), and/or ash-scattering, and floral offerings at other memorial locations including heritage sites;
    anniversary flowers on a memorial bench at a Welsh heritage site

    a memory tree, N. Wales

In addition, in cemeteries and churchyards that ‘going wild’ as conservation areas, we see plots taken over by trees, bushes and shrubs as well as wild flowers. Mortuary commemoration and the botanical environment are rooted firmly and intertwined and remain so;

Fresh Graves as Vegetal Monuments

I’ve paid less attention – partly due to the sensitivities of photographing them (see below) – in discussing vegetal, usually floral, offerings associated with the immediate aftermath of the disposal of the dead. Operating on different scales, these can constitute ‘ephemeral monuments’, placed by multiple individuals and constituting the flowers and wreaths as transferred from the funeral and the coffin and joined by new flowers and potted plants added afterwards.

Creating connections to place and commemorating the dead immediately after ash-interments and inhumation burial, they cover graves, but at crematoria, these are often left on display beside the crematoria buildings for some duration, alongside walls for mourners to see as they depart. Hence, memorial spaces can be afforded with a wealth of floral and other vegetal offerings at the funeral/burial/cremation service and immediately afterwards.

Here, I want to point out a series of ways in which this has become a complex transient arena, facilitated by artificial flowers and artificial grass, as well as fresh and potted plants. Whilst ephemeral, they are seemingly increasingly semi-permanent in multiple ways.

First, they create a connection between the temporary grave-marker and its successor. Here in a Cheshire churchyard, you can see how the floral attention to the entire grave-space defines and protects it, concealing the disturbed earth and as prominent, if not more so than the temporary marker (a wooden cross) at marks the head of the grave. through the integration of new vegetal ‘technologies’. Furthermore, here you can see how it arrangement persists in graves once the headstone is installed, creating a continuity between the temporary grave-furnishing and its more long-term appearance.IMG_2220

Another way in which these vegetal technologies are prolonged post-burial is through synthetic materials. For instance, in some instances, artificial grass seems to be lain out not only for the funeral to conceal disturbed earth around the grave, but as an enduring backcloth for these semi-permanent floral displays. Artificial flowers not only extend the vibrancy of offerings on established graves, but feature prominently in these immediate post-funeral displays too.

Artifical grass takes over a fresh grave

In terms of content, they can constitute cards, photographs and texts, but flowers are central the complex articulation of the social identity of the deceased, their human and animal affinities. For example, names, large photographs and floral texts bearing the name or messages of love create a floral memorial tableau: often with carefully designed colour schemes.

Recently, I noticed how the affinities of the dead are articulated through floral arrangements of their favourite animal spaces. I also a wreath bearing a dog’s paw-print, presencing an animal and mutual affinity between pet and deceased owner in a human space of mourning and commemoration.

Remembered by a devoted pet via the medium of flowers

Some of these temporary displays spill out far beyond the grave, involving placards bearing photographs of the deceased, and wreaths, arranged and stacked over the grave, but also beyond it. These sprawling arrangements from the funeral service and procession are precarious and easily disturbed by rain and wind. In these instances, the grave and its surroundings become a focus of outdoor temporary floral display on a significant scale, formally arranged by readily toppled by natural agencies.

A cascade of floral offerings

In one instance I witnessed, a whole range of material cultures were transformed into floral gigantisms alongside multiple photographic giant floral portraits of the deceased. These include Jacob’s crackers, butter, a mobile phone, a Coke bottle and a packet of Lambert and Butler cigarettes, alongside host of other times that in floral terms conveyed the loves and habits of the deceased as perceived by mourners. Articulating affection but also humour in relation to the remembrance of the dead, the commodities of consumption become the medium of floral mourning and remembrance.

As these floral displays get ever more grand and complex, synthetic and cosmetic, it is important to remember that many do not engage in this practice. For those that do, it is part of a broad spectrum of vegetal investment at the graveside. Notably, some have more personal and modest uses of plant-life to articulate aspects of the deceased’s identity as perceived by the mourners. For example, in one churchyard recently, I encountered a gardener’s grave: with a cauliflower, squash and carrots placed on the lower half of a grave next to an exceptionally green and unfloral wreath. Perhaps a passionate gardener, or perhaps even simply a sufferer of hay fever, floral offerings have been explicitly avoided in this instance!

It seems that flowers, bushes, trees – cut, potted and planted – real and artificial, offer an enduring and ever-increasingly diverse medium for commemoration. What I wish to emphasise here is a sense of how the specifics of vegetal symbolism have transformed from spiritual allusions into the creation of objects and arrangements that speak about the social identity of the dead in relation to living people and animals. Moreover, ephemeral and semi-permanent post-burial arrangements are sometimes gaining huge proportions and link to the consumption practices of the deceased as recalled and remembered by mourners.

Note: I appreciate this is a sensitive topic and that it might be considered questionable to publish photographs of fresh graves. I want to point out that the locations, full context, texts and details of all memorials have been removed and the images have been rendered in low-resolution and after some duration from the time I observed them (many months). I include them here to promote this fascinating and rich aspect of contemporary death ritual.