flowers on graves, before the funeral

There are many references to plants being used in customs relating to preparations for a funeral.  Sprigs of evergreens and rosemary and sometimes flowers were placed around the body (possibly to counteract any odors from the body); they were also placed on the coffin; carried by mourners to the funeral; strewn along the route to the grave; thrown into the grave and onto the coffin as well as being ‘stuck’ on the grave once the funeral was over.

Many folklorists recorded such customs, but rarely as firsthand observations.

for list of related pages see flowers on graves

1770s
Previous to a funeral, it was customary, when the corpse was brought out of the house and laid upon the bier, for the next of kin, be it widow, mother, sister, or daughter (for it must be a female) to give, over the coffin, a quantity of white loaves, in a great dish, and sometimes a cheese, with a piece of money stuck in it, to certain poor persons. After that they presented, in the same manner, a cup of drink, and required the person to drink a little of it immediately. When that was done, they kneeled down; and the minister, if present, said the Lord’s Prayer: after which, they proceeded with the corpse; and at every cross-way, between the house and the church, they layed down the bier, knelt, and again repeated the Lord’s Prayer; and did the same when they first entered the church-yard. It is also customary, in many places, to sing psalms on the way; by which the stillness of rural life is often broken into, in a manner finely productive of religious reflections.
To this hour, the bier is carried by the next of kin; a custom considered as the highest respect that filial piety can pay to the deceased. This was a usage frequent among the Romans of high rank; …
Among the Welsh it was reckoned fortunate for the deceased if it should rain while they were carrying him to church, that his bier might be wet with the dew of heaven. In some places it was customary for the friends of the dead to kneel, and say the Lord’s Prayer over the grave, for several Sundays after the interment; and then to dress the grave with flowers.
Manibus date lilia plenis.
Purpureos spargam fibres; animamque nepotis
His saltèm accumulem donis, et fungar inani
Munere.
Bring fragrant flowers, the fairest lilies bring,
With all the purple beauties of the spring.
These gifts at least, these honors I’ll bestow
On the dear youth, to please his shade below.
Warton
It is still usual to stick, on the eve of St. John the Baptist, over the doors, sprigs of St. John’s Wort, or in lieu of it the common Mugwort. The intent was to purify the house from evil spirits; in the same manner as the Druids were wont to do with Vervaine, which still bears with the Welsh the significant title of Cas gan Gythrael, or the Damons aversion.
Pennant, Thomas, The Journey to Snowdon, (1781), vol. 2, pp. 338-339 (Religious customs)
Pennant, Thomas, A tour in Wales, (1784), p. 152 (Religious customs)
Pennant, Thomas, The Tour in North Wales MDCCLXXIII, vol. 3, pt. 2, (1883), p. 152
Other funeral observances, mentioned by Mr Pennant (vol. iii. pp. 159-161), belong to an earlier date. “It was customary, when the corpse was brought out of the house and laid upon the bier, for the next of kin, be it widow, mother, sister, or daughter (for it must be a female), to give over the coffin a quantity of white loaves, in a great dish, and sometimes a cheese with a piece of money stuck in it, to certain poor persons. After that they presented, in the same manner, a cup of drink, and required the person to drink a little of it immediately. When that was done they kneeled down, and the minister, if present, said the Lord’s Prayer: after which they proceeded with the corpse, and at every cross-way between the house and the church they laid down the bier, knelt, and again repeated the Lord’s Prayer; and did the same when they first entered the churchyard. To this hour, the bier is carried by the next of kin; a custom considered as the highest respect that filial piety can pay to the deceased. In some places it was customary for the friends of the dead to kneel and say the Lord’s Prayer over the grave for several Sundays after the interment.”

1800 Pembrokeshire
{The body was placed on boards in a room in the house. A relative (preferably the eldest daughter) put sprigs of rosemary on the body, and all covered by a sheet. Rosemary was supposed to prevent fowstering (putrefaction). The burial generally took place on the 3rd day after death. On the night before the funeral, the body was put into ‘its narrow cell – the coffin’. The sprigs of rosemary were removed and buried. The burial service usually begun at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.}
‘Another important right was strewing. The oldest woman in the locality was the recognised “strewer”. She would always be present at the funeral, bringing a bush of rosemary, box and bay along with her. She would march in front of the coffin and every now and then break off a twig, now of rosemary, then of box, etc. and drop it in front of the bier. This she would repeat every two hundred yards or so until they reached the church. The grave closed, [she] would stick the remnant on the grave, and plant the roots (for they generally brought roots with them), hence the box and bay so often to be met with in graveyard. This rosemary was supposed to give expression to the wish of friends that the peace of the departed should never be disturbed, and his grave always green. Possibly there is a connection between the evergreens and the idea of immortality as understood by our forefathers; box and bay being symbols (to them) of immortal life, and rosemary of the purity and fragrance of that life. This concluded the ceremonies of obsequities for the dead.’
‘Burial Rites and Ceremonies, AD 1800’ in ‘The Folk lore of S. Pembrokeshire in MS’  by the Reverend W. Meredyth Morris, B.A.,Cardiff,  Central Library 4.308, ff. 62-63

1804
The Bed on which the Corpse lies is always strewed with Flowers, and the same custom is observed after it is laid in the Coffin. They bury much earlier than we do in England; seldom later than the third day, and very frequently on the second. The habit of filling the Bed, the Coffin, and the Room, with sweet-scented Flowers, though originating probably in delicacy as well as affection, must of course have a strong tendency to expedite the progress of decay.
Malkin, Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography of South Wales, (1804), p. 67

1867
Benjamin Hall’s [Lord Llanover] funeral route was strewn with mertyl leaves.
Baner ac Amserau Cymru, 5.6.1867

In Llandysul area the rhybuddiwr angladde, the funeral warner or beadle who served notice of a funeral from farm to farm, carried laurel and box leaves in the funeral procession in order to plant them upon the deceased’s grave.
W.J. Davies, Hanes Plwyf Llandysul, (1896), p. 252