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Into the Garden: Graves often decorated with plants symbolizing motherhood

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Memorial Day weekends, I always wonder about the families connected to the cemetery on our little road. Most years, the plastic flowers placed on the old graves are refreshed with newer, sturdier versions. It's becoming harder and harder for the families who have loved ones interred there to visit, let alone maintain the property properly. Neighbors often take on the task, but it's tedious because of the uneven ground and the random pattern of the graves.Fresh flowers, sadly, are never used. There's a beautiful lilac that blooms each spring, but even it looks a bit tired.Thinking of the lilac (one of my mom's favorites) made me do a bit of research on cemetery plantings and flowers.Cemetery flowers in the South have come full circle -- from clean-scraped ground, to elaborate plantings, to the simple, easy-to-mow modern versions of today.According to, a website that chronicles traditions of the Southern cemetery, the Southern folk cemetery "is characterized by hilltop location, scraped ground, mounded graves, east-west grave orientation, creative grave markers and decorations using materials readily available (not commercially produced), certain species of vegetation, the use of grave shelters, and the obvious devotion to God and/or parents and family with the graveyard workdays and monument dedications."The most distinctive trait of the pioneer folk cemetery of the South was the ground scraped clean of grass. The graves were laid out in an east-west direction, neatly aligned and mounded with dirt. This cleared patch of land, free of grass and weeds, was often found on a hilltop. It would have been scraped a couple times of year, possibly resulting in a hardened surface. The clean cemetery showed honor and respect for the ancestors buried there.In "Texas Graveyards, A Cultural Legacy," Terry Jordan describes a Southern cemetery with a scraped ground: "The first glimpse of such a cemetery truly startles the unsuspecting visitor. Throughout the burial ground, the natural grasses and weeds have been laboriously chopped or 'scraped' away, revealing an expanse of red-orange East Texas soil or somber black prairie earth, sometimes decorated with raked patterns. At each grave, this dirt is heaped in an elongated mound, oriented on an east-west and anchored by a head and foot stone." Grave mounds served several purposes, such as marking the grave and compensating for the settling of the grave.After this early period of barren cemeteries came the plots with some grass, and the addition of magnolia, crape myrtle, cedar, evergreens and flowering shrubs such as roses, azaleas and forsythia. All were native, no-care plants.One of the most common flowers in a Southern cemetery is the rosebush. According to, "so common are roses in southern cemeteries that even the names of the graveyards often derive from this plan; one finds numerous 'Rose Hills' and 'Rose Lawns.'"Roses are associated with motherhood as early as in pagan ritual and throughout Roman and English history, as well as their association with the Virgin Mary.
Lilies are another flower associated throughout history with motherhood, and therefore are found on gravesites throughout the world.Of course, the evergreen is popular for its symbolism as well as for its easy care. "Evergreen" is the fourth most popular cemetery name in the United States and ranks first for graveyards established before 1914.The custom of placing flowers or flowering scrubs or trees in cemeteries seemingly comes from the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. Flowers were found, for example, in King Tut's tomb.Deeply ingrained in the Southern cemetery custom, the use of flowers has spread to new varieties over the years. The traditional rose and lily have been joined by the gardenia, magnolia, azalea, bluebonnet, crape myrtle, nandina and others.
The iris, especially common in Southern cemeteries, is perhaps best interpreted as simply another representation of the traditional flower custom. It possesses the added advantages of helping hold the scraped earth in place and requires little care.Tradition has it that the bloom of the common serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea (Michx. f.) Fernald, was a signal to mourners that they could bury their dead. As one of the first spring bloomers, it was believed that once the serviceberry bloomed, the ground had thawed enough from freezing winter temperatures to allow for digging graves and burial of loved ones who had passed away during a hard winter.According to an article by Rachel Black found on the West Virginia Division of Culture and History website, the most common plants seen in cemeteries in the Appalachian region are periwinkle, vinca, yucca, cedar and other types of evergreen, holly and lilies."If left to their own devices, many of these will naturalize and spread over the entire cemetery and beyond," Black writes. "Periwinkle and vinca are the worst culprits. They are flowering ground covers that do just that -- cover the ground. Likewise, lilies are quite prodigious and can take over an entire cemetery in a matter of years. Yucca is a spiky, cactus-like plant that looks as if it would be much more at home in the desert than the hills of West Virginia. It too can spread over the whole cemetery if given the opportunity. The evergreens and holly tend to stay where planted a little better. Although holly can spread, it doesn't spread with the wild abandon that the groundcovers and lilies do."In an article in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, authors surveyed 40 Muslim graveyards in northern Israel, and saw that the plants found were planted for their ritual importance: aromatics herbs (especially Salvia fruticosa and Rosmarinus officinalis), white flowered plants (mainly Narcissus tazetta, Urginea maritima, Iris spp. and Pancratium spp.) and Cupressus sempervirens as the leading cemetery tree.The use of white flowers in cemeteries reflects an old European influence. Most of the trees and shrubs that are planted in Muslim cemeteries in Israel have the same use in ancient as well in modern European cultures.
Reach Sara Busse at or 304-348-1249.
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