Flowers have been a part of funeral rites across many cultures for time immemorial. Over the centuries, we have cultivated a form of language around the meanings of funeral flowers, as we try to give our feelings a tangible representation and honour the lives of our loved ones who have passed.
Flowers are used in many communities of the UK to both express sincere sympathy for families going through bereavement and to create beautiful tributes to the loved ones we have lost. While funeral flower meanings are personal (and differ between people of varying cultures and beliefs), it is clear that flowers play an important role for many of us in the experience of loss.
Funeral Flower Meanings in History
In the tombs of ancient pharaohs, fresh flowers were used to decorate statues and fill beautifully crafted jugs, while the deceased royals were bedecked with flower crowns and garlands. Even further back in history, a 12,000-year-old cemetery in Israel appears to contain individuals buried on a thick bed of aromatic plants such as mint and figwort, with one double burial of an adult and adolescent being particularly resplendent in greenery.
Our oldest potential evidence for the use of flowers in funeral rites, however, comes not from a Sapien burial but a Neanderthal one – even if this is still in contention amongst archaeologists. In the Shanidar caves in Iraq, Neanderthal skeletons were found with the pollen of wildflowers, including hollyhock, thistle, cornflower and grape hyacinth, suggesting their bodies may have been covered in flowers when they were laid to rest.
Shrouded as it is by the depth of many thousands of years of history, we cannot explain exactly what these ancient peoples intended to convey with their use of funeral flowers, but we can recognise in their actions some impulses that are easy to understand – to express the love and admiration they felt for the person who has died
Funeral Flower Meanings in the Modern Age
Today, flowers are a key motif in the majority of funeral services, serving as a profound reminder of life and helping grieving families express something of their affection and love. The meanings we attach to flowers in funeral service are usually dependent on that context – the same flower may be used at a wedding and have entirely different connotations.
But while the meaning behind funeral flowers may be a nebulous and subtle thing, there are some traditional associations we attach to certain flowers. The Victorians in particular were interested in the symbolism of flowers to convey messages not easily put into words, and some of these meanings are still understood today.
Lilies are perhaps one of the most familiar funeral flowers, used in arrangements, floral tributes and to send condolences. With a distinctly sweet fragrance and beautiful bloom, lilies are meant to represent the restoration of innocence to a departed soul, and white stargazer lilies are especially used to convey sympathy to those in a state of loss.
Sometimes known as the “sword lily”, Gladioli are tall, impressive plants with a strong stem and attractive cluster of flowers. Their striking stature has meant they have come to be associated with moral fortitude, faithfulness and strength of character, and they are often chosen for funeral arrangements.
Carnations are lovely flowers, with fine ruffled petals and a rich fragrance of sugar and cloves, and they have long been associated with mourning and grief. While carnations generally symbolise eternal love and care, white and pink carnations are particularly poignant at a funeral, with white signifying deep sorrow and pink carrying the message “I will never forget you”.
A potted orchid blooms every year and will last far longer than cut flowers. Representing eternal love, their longevity and heartfelt message make them a popular flower to express sympathy when someone has passed away. White, green and blue orchids all have profound meanings at a time of bereavement, with white orchids indicating purity, green conveying extra blessings and blue connected to spirituality.
Tulips and Daffodils:
Tulips and daffodils, both archetypal Spring flowers, represent hope, renewal and new beginnings. For people who consider their loved ones’ funeral to be a celebration of a life well-lived, or who believe that death is simply a step on a longer journey, tulips and daffodils can be a joyful testament to hope, faith and the potential for great happiness – in this life and beyond. They may also be used to honour someone who had a particularly sunny and cheerful personality, for whom more sombre tributes would feel inappropriate.
Roses are many people’s favourite flowers, and it is easy to see why. Growing in many different forms and colours, and usually sweet-smelling, they are often the first choice when people are choosing funeral flower arrangements.
Different coloured roses have different connotations. Red roses are traditionally a Valentines’ rose, denoting romantic love and devotion (and are therefore something a spouse might choose in a floral tribute to their partner). White roses, on the other hand, are a symbol of innocence and reverence, while yellow roses are meant to represent strong attachments. When sending sympathy flowers, including one rose amongst other flowers can symbolise enduring love, and express your deep feelings for the deceased.
Poppies and Blue Salvia:
In the Victorian language of flowers, poppies stand for consolation, while delicate blue salvias denote that the sender has you in their thoughts. While red, white, purple and black poppies particularly represent military commemoration and sacrifice (more on this below), a person may choose to send poppies or salvia to a grieving family to let them know they are thinking of them.
Forget-me-nots are exquisite, purple-blue flowers which act (as their name suggests) as an emblem of remembrance. Sending forget-me-nots as sympathy flowers can be a touching gesture to suggest that the person who has passed will live on in your memories, while packets and papers with forget-me-not seeds can be used as memorial gifts to funeral attendees. These wildflowers grow well in gardens, acting as a living tribute and reminder of someone no longer with us, while also helping bees and other pollinators.
What is the Flower of Death?
Which flowers specifically represent death changes according to culture and location, but in many parts of the world, chrysanthemums are particularly associated with the end of someone’s life. In some European countries (like Poland, Croatia, France, Italy and Spain) chrysanthemums are so symbolic of death that they are only used at funerals and as ornamental plants in cemeteries, and it is unusual to receive them outside of a time of mourning.
The tendency to view chrysanthemums as the flower of death extends to other continents as well. In China, Japan and Korea, while chrysanthemums generally represent everything from happiness to perfection, white chrysanthemums are still considered a funeral flower, and one that symbolises lamentation and grief.
The UK and Australia see chrysanthemums as a happy, positive flower – Australians traditionally give them to their mothers on Mother’s day – and they are also viewed this way in much of the USA. The city of New Orleans, however, is a notable exception, with Spanish and French influences still holding a strong cultural sway in the association of chrysanthemums with funerals.
Other flowers which can represent death are so-called “black roses”, roses that flower in very dark shades of purple or red and have become, through their sombre petals, a symbol of mourning. After growing on the battle-churned fields of Flanders, red poppies have come to represent remembrance for people who have lost their lives at war, while black poppies are used to commemorate black, African and Caribbean communities’ contribution to the war effort in both World War 1 and 2.
Meanings of Funeral Flowers Across the Globe
Flowers aren’t used in every funeral tradition, (for example, in Jewish shiva services or burial practices, it is often more appropriate to send fruit and food baskets as an expression of sympathy than flowers) but they are an aspect of mourning for a large variety of cultures.
Perhaps one of the world’s most famous traditions centred around mourning – explored in films such as The Book of Life and Coco – are the Day of the Dead (Día de Los Muertos) celebrations in Central and South America. Here, family gravesites are decorated with yellow flowers such as yellow marigolds and sunflowers, a practice which ties into cultural folklore. According to local beliefs, yellow flowers acts as a signal to loved ones in the afterlife, calling them to their living families so they can all spend time together.
The archipelago of Haiwai also has a strong tradition of funeral flowers. During Hawaiian funeral services, it is customary to wear a lei (a garland of flowers that is used on the islands as a token of welcome or farewell) made of leaves and vines, and these garlands can also be part of the funeral decorations. Once the service is complete, people often choose to drape their lei over the casket, place it in the ocean, or leave it at a spot that meant something to the person who has passed.
Ultimately, our choice of funeral flowers is a personal one, and different flowers mean different things to us according to our memories, beliefs and preferences – no matter their “traditional” meaning. We offer floristry services for bespoke funeral flowers, so you can choose the arrangements and flowers most meaningful to you. If you would like to find out more, feel free to contact us.