Part of my job at funerals is to help transport flowers. There are casket sprays of flowers, standing or ‘cemetery flowers,’ artificial flowers, flowers in vases, flowers in pots, flowers in baskets, flowers in the shape of a cross or a heart or just about anything you can think of, flowers for boutonnieres, flowers, flowers, flowers. You get the picture. I can’t think of any funerals I’ve been a part of that have not included some sort of flowers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently bad about flowers, it’s just that I see a lot of them, and moving them around can get old. They are moved around the funeral home, then to the place of the funeral, then to the place of burial, then to the grave or the family’s home… There are fiascoes with flowers losing their life too soon, or being the wrong color, or getting delivered too late, or forgotten at some point along the way. But there are also beautiful moments with flowers where they are sent from friends and relatives who cannot attend the funeral, and flowers do have a way of being very meaningful and bringing a certain pleasantness to a dreary situation.
There is a puzzling thing about the tradition of sending flowers to funerals: flowers die. They are colorful and they usually smell nice, but as soon as they are cut, they die. When left at a cemetery, they rarely last longer than a few days. Even the artificial ones fade with time in the sunlight and get blown away by wind.
I don’t think flowers are a bad thing at funerals, but I do think they are better in moderation. Also, in some cases, flowers are just not practical, such as if the family is from out of town and could not travel with flowers conveniently. One alternative to flowers is to have memorials made in memory of a person. In obituaries, you’ll often see the phrase, “In lieu of flowers memorials may be made to…..” as a way to direct giving to charity or hospice programs. Other alternatives are food items, cards, and short phone calls or visits to the home.
Most cultures incorporate flowers in some aspect at funerals. In some circles, however, flowers are considered inappropriate. Jewish funerals, for example, are solemn occasions and do not have flowers of any kind. Instead, Jewish tradition is to place small stones on graves. The reasons behind this fascinating tradition are varied, and the origins are up for debate. I ran across a beautiful story of how shepherds used to keep stones in a sling to account for how many sheep were with them. The stones on the grave, therefore, hark back to those times and serve as a way of asking the Lord to watch over the soul of the departed, as a shepherd does over the flock. Many say the custom is carried down from the ancient days of building altars to commemorate places and events and of burying the dead along roadways and marking those graves with stones (known as building a cairn). It is thought that this act of assembling any physical structure having to do with a grave or a meaningful location has an incredible impact on how the place or the grief is processed and remembered.
Even today, Jewish tradition is to place a small stone on a grave when it is visited, as a way of marking the spot in time and space and in memory (seen in a closing scene of Schindler’s List). I suppose flowers do the same thing for many people, but I think there’s something uniquely special about the stones. They are more permanent and weighty and even a little rough and dark, kind of like grief.
I don’t think modern perpetual care cemeteries would be very happy about having a bunch of stones start accumulating on graves or on headstones,
but I think it’s a very thoughtful tradition that can make us stop and think about what we do to honor the memory of those we love and how we can have different physical responses for grief and commemoration.
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What have you done or seen done ‘in lieu of flowers?’