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The Tradition and Art of Funeral Flowers

A fascinating article about fresh flower altars at Japanese funeral services got us thinking about the significance of funeral flowers.

The Japanese word seikasaidan is used to describe the art of Japanese fresh flower altars. It’s amazing to look at photos of  the many flowers it takes to create these gigantic works of art. A cultural shift in how the flowers are displayed is described in the article. This is not a new tradition, though it’s hardly the first use of flowers to symbolize death as a stage in the life cycle.

We’ll go into history a little later in this post, but it makes sense to look at why funeral flowers and sympathy flowers continue to be a big part of shared culture around the world.

What do flowers symbolize at a funeral?

There are several reasons funeral services and celebrations of life include flowers. One, they help facilitate our emotional release. It’s a challenge for some of us in mourning to express grief verbally. Sending flowers to the funeral site or to a loved one’s home expresses respect, sympathy and love for the deceased.

Funeral flowers are often displayed at a wake in the funeral home and in a place of worship during religious services honoring the dead. Flowers also often decorate a gravesite, are draped over a casket or arranged aside an urn.

What kind of flowers do you send in sympathy?

Traditional flower choices include tulips, gladiolas, carnations, roses, calla lilies, golden lilies, irises and snapdragons—though there are no “rules” when it comes to types of flowers for funeral displays.

Traditional arrangements include crosses and hearts, standing sprays, casket mounds and wreaths.

Live plants are another option, but it’s a good idea to ensure that whoever received the live plant (or tree) is able to care for it, as plants are also an obligation.

History and changing traditions with funeral flowers

Flower altars in Japan were traditionally  made of chrysanthemums only for many years. Eventually other white flowers were added, and now even some colorful flowers assist in the magnificent designs. Men were traditionally honored with artworks symbolizing ocean waves and mountains, though that has shifted to include women who have passed in recent years.

Throughout history, flowers symbolize each stage of the life cycle from birth to death. The earliest record of funeral flowers goes back more than 60,000 years to the Shanidar Cave in Iraq. A male Neanderthal skeleton was discovered there with pollen deposits from eight wildflowers including cornflower, grape hyacinth, hollyhock and thistle.

In the 19th century, “flower ladies” carried flowers from a funeral home to the procession to arrange them at the cemetery plot for families.

Flowers traditionally honor our dead as a symbol of the fragile, fleeting nature of life. The natural beauty of flowers also lessens some emotional burden accompanied by other traditional imagery of death.

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