flowers on graves, Shakespeare

Shakespeare was often quoted by tourists and others as an early source of evidence for the custom of placing flowers on graves (details below).

The lines most commonly quoted by those who wrote about the history of placing flowers on graves are from Cymbeline (first performed 1611). Act IV, Scene 2, which is set near the cave of Belarius in Wales. Fidele was Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen in the disguise of a page.

With fairest flowers
Whilst Summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I’ll sweeten thy sad grave:
Thou shalt not lack
The flower, that’s like thy face, pale primrose; nor
The azur’d harebell, like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Outsweeten’d not thy breath.
and later in the scene, BELARIUS says:
Here’s a few flowers! but about midnight more:
The herbs that have on them cold dew o’ the night
Are strewings fitt’st for graves
You were as flowers now wither’d; even so
These herblets shall, which we upon you strow.

Hamlet (1599-1602), act 4 scene 5
White his shroud as the mountain snow,
Larded all with sweet flowers;
Which be-wept to the grave did go,
With true love showers.

Hamlet, act 5 scene 1
Gertrude scattered flowers on Ophelia’s grave
Sweets to the sweet. Farewell!
I hoped thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid,
And not have strewed thy grave.”

Ophelia was allowed a virgin’s garland or crant, even though the cause of her death was ‘doubtful’. The priest, at her interment says,
Here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Lay her i’ the earth ;—
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring.

Romeo and Juliet,  act 4 scene 5
Friar Lawrence:
Dry up your tears and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse, and, as the custom is,
And in her best array, bear her to church.

All things that we ordained festival
Turn from their office to black funeral.
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast.
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse,
And all things change them to the contrary.

Romeo and Juliet,  Act 5 Scene 3
Paris came with flowers to strew his lady’s grave.

Queen Katherine (King Henry VIII, act 4, scene 2)
‘When I am dead, good wench,
Let me be used with honour: strew me over
With Maiden flowers.’


These references to Shakespeare, which also often referred to the fake poem written by Iolo Morganwg which he ascribed to Dafydd ap Gwylim (c.1315/1320 – c.1350/1370); Herrick and other poets, illustrate how one or two early published accounts of tours prompted others to refer to the classics, but most of them did not plagiarise whole paragraphs – they were quite selective in what they copied.

1774 St. David’s
I am sorry to add, that the church is kept in a very slovenly manner; part of it is not paved, and the graves are frequently raised within it of earth, as in common church yards. There is something innocent, and pathetically pleasing, in the idea of strewing flowers and evergreens over the grave of a departed friend, which is the universal practice of these parts.
With fairest flow’rs, whilst summer lasts, …
How remarkable doth the judgment and propriety of Shakespeare shew themselves, in his adapting these lines to the mouth of a young prince, who had long been educated, under the care of a supposed shepherd, in this part of the island! the scene being actually laid in a forest near Milford Haven. . . but when we saw the faded and perished plants, rotting on the heaps of new raised earth, within the walls of the church; they no longer pleased, but became offensive, disgusting, and unwholesome.
Wyndham, Henry Penruddocke. A gentleman’s tour through Monmouthshire and Wales, in the months of June and July, (1774), pp. 85-86
Wyndham, Henry Penruddocke. A gentleman’s tour through Monmouthshire and Wales, in the months of June and July, 1774, and in the months of June, July and August, 1777, (2nd edition, 1781), pp.72-73
This paragraph was included in a review of Wyndham’s work in The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, (1781), p. 576

1803 Briton Ferry
The custom of planting ever-greens over the graves of departed friends, and bedecking them with flowers at certain seasons of the year, is here attended to with peculiar care ; … Shakespeare also, with exquisite tenderness : “With fairest flowers while summer lasts” (etc.)
Barber, J.T., 1774-1841, Tour Throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire, 1803, p. 151-2

1801-1804 Bonvilston
Too much praise cannot be due to the becoming attention the inhabitants of this part of the country bestow upon the very soil that covers the remains of their deceased friends and relatives. …  Nor are the tender effusions of the immortal Shakespeare to be forgotten in testimony of its observance at a much later period :—
“With fairest flowers while summer lasts … ”
Donovan, Edward, Descriptive Excursions through South Wales and Monmouthshire, in the year 1804 and the four preceding summers (London, 1805)

1808 Cadoxton
In the afternoon a Welsh girl shewed me the way to Aberdyllis cascade; a walk of two miles by the high road through the rural village of Cadoxton. The churchyard has the graves so thickly planted with flowers of all sorts as to present the appearance of a rich parterre, instead of the awful mansions of the dead; and here most applicable are the lines of Shakespeare. “With fairest flowers, while summer lasts …
Spence, Elizabeth, (1768-1832) Summer Excursions through parts of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Derbyshire, and South Wales (1809), p. 101

1810 Wales
There appears however full proof that much attention was once devoted to “Graves”; for Shakespeare … exclaims
“With fairest flowers, while summer lasts …
Bruce, William Joseph, A Peregrination through part of the Counties of Somerset, Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire with a portion of South Wales and a tour round north Wales as performed in the Autumn of the Year 1810, to which is subjoined a brief History of the Principality of Wales … and a tour [of part of England] during the summer of 1809, pp. 299-300

Shakespeare has frequently noticed these ever-greens, garlands, and flowers, as forming a part of the tributary rites of the departed, as elegant memorials of the dead : at the funeral of Juliet he adopts the rosemary: — Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary  …
Drake, Nathan, Shakespeare and his times: including the biography of the poet …, Volume 1, (1817), pp. 239-245

1819 Briton ferry
Near the ferry is the Church Yard, which is rendered interesting from the custom peculiar to South Wales of decking the graves with flowers. … The decoration of graves with flowers is also beautifully alluded to by Shakespeare on the supposed death of Imogin.
‘Tour through the vales of Glamorgan’ by Thomas Hornor, 1819, Glamorgan Record Office D/D Xfn 1/1

1821 Catholic cantons of Switzerland, as well as in many parts of North and South Wales
The graves, in those beautiful and romantic provinces, are decorated, on Palm Sunday, with leaves of laurel, cypress, and all the flowers, which are in blossom at that early season of the year.  Shakespeare [alludes to a] similar one in Hamlet, Winter’s Tale, and in Cymbeline; where Arviragus, contemplating the body of Fidele, promises to sweeten his grave with the fairest flowers of summer.
Bucke, Charles, On the Beauties, Harmonies, and Sublimities of Nature; with Occasional Remarks on the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Opinions of Various Nations.( 4 vols. London, 1821), pp. 256-267 [with extensive footnotes, quoting Brand amongst others. The above is only part of the original.] Reviewed with extensive excerpts in The Literary Chronicle and Weekly review for 1821, May 12, 1821, pp. 292-293

1825 Llangollen
We saw some graves that had been lately made with a border of turf all round and flowers strewed over or planted on the mound in this way they would remain for a year before the stones would be laid down. … Shakespeare in his Cymberline frequently alludes to it. “With Sweetest Flowers …”
Spurrett, Eliza, The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland, 7D542/1, (22nd July, 1825)

A veneration for deceased friends and relatives is a favourable trait in the character of a people. This taste for decorating the Tombs occurs in very remote Countries, which hold but little communication with each other, — and prevails equally in South Africa, … and in China. … And our own sweet SHAKESPEARE, with inimitable tenderness, adds,— With fairest flowers …
Carlisle, Nicholas, An historical account of the Origin of the Commission appointed to inquire concerning charities in England and Wales; and, an illustration of several old customs and words, which occur in the reports.  (1828)

1829 Monmouth
‘A very ancient and pious custom is still prevalent in Monmouth – that of strewing the graves of the departed, and churchyards with flowers and evergreens on festivals and holidays.’ Quotation from Shakespeare ‘With Fairest flowers …’
Anon, 1829, NMW 184561, pp. 75-77

PLANTING GRAVES. The custom of planting evergreens over the graves of departed friends, and adorning them at certain seasons of the year with flowers, is very prevalent throughout Wales. Shakespeare refers to it … in Cymbeline. … ‘With fairest flowers …
In Glamorganshire, the bed on which the corpse lies is usually strewed with flowers; and this custom is also alluded to by the Bard of Avon [from Romeo and Juliet] :
White his shroud as the mountain snow,
Larded all with sweet flowers;
Which be-wept to the grave did go.
With true-love showers.”
Leigh’s Guide to Wales & Monmouthshire: containing observations on the mode of travelling, plans of various tours, sketches of the manners and customs, notices of historical events, and description of every remarkable place, and a minute account of the Wye, with a map of Wales. . . (London, Samuel Leigh, 1831). First edition, with several subsequent editions up to 1844, p. 17

In Wales, this custom of strewing the graves, as well as filling the bed, the coffin, and the room, is observed to this day… Of this custom there are many poetical notices. … Shakespeare’s Arviragus, in Cymbeline;— ‘With fairest flowers …’
Timbs, John,  Knowledge for the people or, the plain Why and Because, (Boston, 1832) which includes a question and answer section on flowers on graves, part 11, Curious Customs, pp. 62-67

Shakespeare must have travelled Wales because he ‘refers so minutely to the exquisite custom of many parts of Wales wherein the relatives are wont to plant flowers on the graves of the dead.’
North Wales Chronicle (Bangor, Wales), Saturday, June 7, 1862; Issue 1833

I might crowd my pages with extracts from the older British poets, who wrote when these rites were more prevalent, and delighted frequently to allude to them; but I have already quoted more than is necessary. I cannot, however, refrain from giving a passage from Shakespeare, even though it should appear trite; which illustrates the emblematical meaning often conveyed in these floral tributes; and at the same time possesses that magic of language and appositeness of imagery for which he stands pre-eminent. ‘With fairest flowers…’

The sketch book of Geoffrey Crayon [pseudonym for Washington Irving], Gent, Volume 1 By Washington Irving (Originally published 1819 – 1820) 1839, pp. 179-195; The complete works of Washington Irving in one volume By Washington Irving (1834) p. 267

1840 Llanbeblig churchyard, Caernarfon
The spacious churchyard is crowded with tombstones and with little hallowed mounds that mark the last earthly resting places of the old and the young, the proud and the humble, the rich and the poor. … [Quotes Shakespeare : ‘With fairest flowers …]
Bransby, James Hews, A Description and Historical Sketch of Beddgelert and its Neighbourhood, (London, 1840), pp. 42-44; Bransby, James Hews,  A Description of Llanberis and the Snowdon District (Caernarfon, 1845), pp. 95-98

1858 (and earlier?) Briton Ferry
The churchyard is much admired, the custom of planting evergreens and flowers over the graves of departed friends being here observed with peculiar care. [note]
This practice prevails generally in the southern parts of Wales. … To the feelings which lead to this custom Shakespeare thus adverts in Cymbeline :— With fairest flowers …
Black’s Picturesque Guide Through North and South Wales and Monmouthshire 8th edition, 1858, p. 333;
Black’s Picturesque Guide to South Wales and Monmouthshire (1871), pp. 299-300

Shakespeare’s Arviragus, in Cymbeline, says: ‘With fairest flowers …’
Timbs, John  Mysteries of Life, Death, and Futurity: Illustrated from the Best and Latest Authorities by Horace Welby (John Timbs), (London, 1861) which includes a section on flowers on graves, pp. 170-174

Shakespeare must have travelled Wales because he ‘refers so minutely to the exquisite custom of many parts of Wales wherein the relatives are wont to plant flowers on the graves of the dead.’
North Wales Chronicle (Bangor, Wales), June 7, 1862

1879 Llanymynech
Strewing flowers on Graves. Among the beautiful and simple-hearted customs of rural life which still linger in this parish are those of strewing flowers in the grave of a departed friend and planting them on the mound, and again at Easter and Whitsuntide strewing fresh flowers upon it. … Quotation from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline :— With fairest flowers …
Fewtrell, John, Parochial History of Llanymynech, chapter IV, Manners and Customs, Montgomery Collections, vol. 12, (1879), p. 380

1880 Quaint Old Customs, Death and Burial
But the Welsh carry the association of graves and floral life to the most lavish extreme. Shakespeare has alluded to this in ‘Cymbeline’ the scene of which tragedy is principally in Pembrokeshire, at or about Milford Haven: With fairest flowers …
Sikes, Wirt, (1836-1883, United Sates Consul for Wales), British Goblins : Welsh folk-lore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions; with illustrations by T.H. Thomas. 1880, (2nd edition, 1880), pp. 336-337

This brings me to the well-known old Glamorgan fashion of strewing flowers on graves … Shakespeare frequently alludes to it in Romeo and Juliet For instance, the poet says Paris “came with flowers to strew his lady’s grave”
Glamorgan Antiquities By Henry G. Butterworth, XXXII, Cardiff Times, 23.4.1887

In times past the Welsh always carried the association of graves and flowers to the most lavish extreme, and Shakespeare, alluding to this in Cymbeline, the scene of which tragedy is more especially in Pembrokeshire, says: With fairest flowers…
Davies, J Ceredig, Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales, 1911, pp. 53-54