The Dirt: Flowers and plants in memoriam
When my yellow lab, Moby, died, fourteen years ago, my friend Marge sent me a gift certificate for a tree in his memory. The gesture moved me to tears, in part because someone understood that my pet was a significant family member and that the loss was enormous and painful. It also touched me because my friend knew that a tree would be a meaningful symbol to me. The tree (a Dawn redwood) is alive and well, and it often evokes the memory of my beloved dog and the sensitivity of my friend.
That was my first experience with plants given in remembrance, and it stayed with me as a kind thing to do. Since then, I’ve been to many funerals and memorial services, and always notice that plants are part of how we remember and celebrate our loved ones—even if some choices and traditions are changing.
As handwritten letters and telephone calls have given way to ecards, texts, and Facebook postings, trends in funeral traditions have also changed. Burials are fewer and cremations more common. More people now pre-plan their own funerals, and funeral and memorial services are more personalized and dwell less on grief and more on celebrating life. Rather than formal floral arrangements draped over and around the casket—often with a gilded script reading “Mom” or “Beloved Husband”—now there are memorial tables filled with photos and favorite objects. Flowers are presented in vases that can travel home with the grieving family.
In many cases, families express a preference for charitable donations “in lieu of flowers,” a practice that evokes strong opinions for and against. Occasionally, one hears that it’s poor taste to tell people how to express their grief or respect, but many appreciate the opportunity to spend their money in a meaningful way—keeping in mind that flowers quickly die. Organizations like the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society report that ten to fifteen percent of their contributions come from memorial giving.
This trend is hurting the floral industry, which reports that funeral work is down as much as fifty percent over the past decade, in both the number of flower arrangements received per funeral and the dollars spent per arrangement. One funeral director reported that seven years ago, a family would typically receive thirteen or fourteen arrangements, worth upwards of $700, but now seven pieces would be more typical. (However, florists also report that there are new trends toward flower gifting for many other kinds of events.)
Still, as long as there are funerals, there will surely be flowers, whether in free-standing wreaths, hearts, or crosses; flower sprays in upright arrangements; or flowers draped over the casket, and in baskets. White lilies, roses, daisies, Peace Lilies, and other pastel colored flowers still predominate, but current trends show that wildflowers and seasonal cut flowers are becoming more popular.
Living plants to remember gardeners
Gardeners present their own challenge when it comes to giving memorial flowers. When asked their preferences, many gardeners may say, “I’d like to be composted,” “Put my ashes in the garden,” or “Cut flowers die; I’d rather have you plant a tree.” But they’re also concerned about the burden that planting and care of a tree or other plants may place on their loved ones, and most would still like to have some flowers at their funerals, given that their happiest hours were spent in the flower garden.
With those thoughts in mind, I recently helped a young woman design a funeral basket for her gardening friend that serves a dual purpose: We filled a large basket with potted perennials—a Knockout rose, Russian sage, shasta daisies, and mandevillas—and covered the pots with sphagnum moss. We chose those plants only after knowing there was a sunny garden location the deceased had already chosen. We included planting and care instructions, ribbons, and a beautiful silk butterfly. The downside: The basket was heavy. The upside: The arrangement was beautiful in the funeral parlor and the plants did go on to the garden, where they are tended with both tears and pleasure.
A tree or shrub, given in the form of a gift certificate, is often the perfect choice, especially if you don’t know the intended site well, or when the family or friends would want to be able to plant and tend it. The tree selection and planting might even be more meaningful a year from the loss, or the following spring, so be sure your gift certificate does not expire. I remember shopping for Moby’s tree only when I could finally speak of him without tears streaming and a pain in my chest; by then choosing a tree was a joyful task.
What tree to choose? The right tree is the one that suits the site, so first consider its ultimate size and needs. After that, symbols abound. Some traditional tree symbols include: pines (resilience), birches (reflection), willow (remembrance), and Dawn redwood (renewal). I love the contemporary symbolism of “The Survivor Tree,” the Callery pear that emerged from the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11; its planting now makes a strong statement. Similarly, 400 swamp white oak trees have been planted at Ground Zero in New York City, in honor of victims. They and sturdy trees such as Eastern white pine, red oak, gingko and sugar maple all present good odds of survival if planted and tended carefully.
Last, but hardly least, the most popular plant in America—hosta—offers an aptly named cultivar, Remember Me, for memorial purposes. This was not a commercial gimmick foisted on a sentimental public. The plant was named for Sandy De Boer, an employee of Walters Gardens, who died of breast cancer in 2001. The plant is a sport of her favorite hosta, ‘June,’ and since her death, Walters Gardens has contributed over $27,000 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Plant sales continue to contribute to that cause.
Sally Cunningham is a gardener, garden writer and lecturer, and TV gardening advisor. She is director of the National Garden Festival, and consultant at Lockwood’s Greenhouses in Hamburg.