Commonwealth Network
Mount Auburn Cemetery

Living Things:
Common Cemetery Plants

The mountain ash or rowan deters evil spirits from bothering the dead. The precise nature of the diabolicals' allergy to the rowan is unknown.
Bristlecone Pine.
Bristlecone pines may be the oldest living things on earth. In the dry climate of eastern California, the wood resists rot for centuries. The people of Mono and Inyo counties, California, place twisted burls on their graves, perhaps to symbolize eternal life.
No Roman funeral was complete without the cypress. This is, of course, the stiletto-like Italian tree, not the unruly conifers of the Western United States and elsewhere. Cypress branches adorned the vestibule while the body lay in state. Mourners carried its branches as a sign of respect. And the bodies of the great were laid upon cypress branches before interment.
Daisies recall to us the sun and as such imply the presence of God and the hope of resurrection.
People used to believe that holly bushes protected tombs and other monuments
from lightning strikes.
Ivy springs up naturally to cover English tombs, but Americans who transplanted it to their graveyards decided that it meant friendship and, like most cemetery plants, also immortality.
A symbol of worldly accomplishment and heroism, given not by God, but by one's peers.
The virgins' flower and also the symbol of resurrection and purity.
A belladonna relative whose roots grow in the shape of a man. Mandrake is believed to spring from the lifeforce of the interred. Lively imaginations hear a shriek when it is pulled from the ground. Germans used to make dolls from the tuber and keep their creations in little caskets.
Like the laurel and the bay, the evergreen myrtle represents achievement.
It also suggests eternal life.
Mighty oaks act as conduits for lightning, bringing the explosive will of electricity-packing sky gods to earth. Both Jupiter and Odin lay claim to this tree. Oak leaves on tombs can stand for power, authority (especially military authority), or victory. They look nice, too.
Romans engraved palm fronds on the tombs of heroes to commemorate their victories in North Africa. By 33 AD, the palm was used to greet any popular figure. Christians recognize it as the emblem marking the beginning of the Passion which ended in Christ's victory over death.
Roses signify completion, the achievement of perfection. The sinless Christian earns for her or himself a rose. The virgin gets a white rose. Red roses stand for earthly love and blue roses (very rare) represent an impossible end. Perhaps to keep mourners cheered, blue roses seldom appear in cemetery art. Yellow roses, the emblem of jealousy, also seldom appear:
few envy the dead so much.
As Ophelia said, "Rosemary, that's for remembrance." In former days, it was put in coffins and given to mourners as a favor.
A Japanese herb given as a memoriam offering at temples.
Visitors to American cemeteries are often puzzled by stones shaped like tree stumps. Some of these are very fancy, with tiny squirrels and birds perched on the sawn-off branches. Catholic cemeteries often have crosses made from logs over the grave. Closer inspection often reveals the acronym W.O.W. on the marker. These stones are the product of Woodmen of the World, a 19th and 20th century fraternal organization which provided such stones as part of the insurance available to members. They were usually sculpted by local craftsmen who used sandstone, concrete, and other materials to create the monuments. They symbolize, undoubtably, the cutting off of life, as well as membership in the organization.
Willows allow anyone a perpetual mourner. They also possess utility: gravediggers faced with high water tables plant thirsty willows to suck up the excess liquid.
Dark yew trees add a gloomy, somber air to English churchyards. Anglo settlers brought them to America where they have become a feature of many graveyards. The trope "yew" or "you" tree invokes in the mind of poets a representation of the ultimate end of us all. (Cf. Wordsworth Yew-Trees and Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree) English cemeteries became yew-tree reserves because the branches were used to make bows. Once a year, parishioners would clip the churchyard yews so that other cemeteries might be filled with the victims of war.

As cemetery landscapes become diverse and our heirs to this earth wonder for what reason we chose this vegetation, other plants will enter the taxonomies of symbolic sepulchre gardening. The human imagination will doubtless translate the rapid growth of the eucalyptus, the longevity of the redwood, and the soporific qualities of the poppy into new symbols. We find meaning because we beg for it.

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