Flowers on Graves: A Brief History

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March 11, 2021
Flowers on Graves: A Brief History

Grave sites are a place of mourning, of memories--and of remembrance. Laying flowers down at the grave of a loved one is a tradition that many people participate in, whether you reserve a special bouquet for an anniversary or lay down a favorite flower on their birthday. In addition to flowers, other items--such as wreaths and mementos--have become commonplace in cemeteries. But why do we decorate graves? What leads us to leave flowers or photographs or other tokens at the resting place of our friends, family and other loved ones? 

A Brief History

Laying down flowers and other decorations at a grave site is not a modern phenomenon. Evidence has been found that suggests people have been laying down flowers and mementos at graves for thousands of years. However, the earliest reasons for laying down flowers on graves was often religious or ritualistic.

For example, the ancient Romans laid down flowers and other mementos at the site of tombs because they believed the spirits of those who passed remained in the area of the grave site; continuing to decorate these graves was a way to show the spirits that they were remembered and honored. Other ancient cultures used flowers in death rituals to symbolize the cycles of life and death. 

The Turning Point

It is believed that the turning point for using flowers and similar grave decorations as a way to remember and memorialize the dead occurred after the American Civil War. A special “Decoration Day” was enacted in order to encourage family members and loved ones of those who died during the conflict to place flowers and decorations at their grave sites.

Over the years, people began to extend this type of remembrance to all graves and people. 

Our ancestors would certainly be surprised at how different our own mourning rituals are, whether you’re visiting a loved one’s grave site on their birthday,  attending a socially distancing funeral, or visiting loved ones via a video system like AFTR. But they would likely recognize the shared action of laying down flowers for honor, memory--and remembrance.