Death means different things to different people, across cultures, across generations, and it seems to be ever evolving and shifting through time. Because death is such a profound undertaking, something none of us can escape and so many of us struggle to come to terms with, we often need to create rites and rituals around it.
Flowers and plants go a long way toward completing those rituals, and so we humans have found ways to use plants to represent death in various ways.
We have flowers for grief, flowers for foreboding, and flowers of remembrance. Not to mention flowers that literally kill.
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Plants and Flowers and Their Meaning Throughout History
From the beginning of time, humans have had to work with plants and flowers, so it is no wonder that they hold such meaning to us in so many ways.
Before we learned to hunt large game and eat meat, or even when there was scarce game, we had to rely on plants for life. We foraged for berries, picked mushrooms, and gathered nuts and seeds. All of these plants gave us life.
Then, once we settled into domestic life, either temporarily or permanently, we used flowers for decoration, on our tables and hearths. We planted gardens for pure decorative value. We even included plants in our sacred rituals.
Over time, different cultures used different flowers for different rituals, and those symbols held fast and strong until this day. Mythology helps, of course. The Greeks, the Romans, the Bible, the Vedas, and Chinese and African mythology and lore all have flowers throughout that represent different feelings, events, and experiences in life.
The red rose stands for passion across almost all cultures. The lotus flower has long symbolized overcoming, strength, and resilience. White flowers typically represent innocence and purity. And, of course, we have the flowers of death.
Why Some Plants and Flowers Symbolize Death
Death is something we all must experience no matter what. You’ve heard the expressions, “no one is getting out of here alive” or “nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.”
Yes. We’re stuck with it.
So much of western culture struggles with death in modern times. We won’t talk about it. We fear it. It is a taboo subject.
In other cultures, like in China or Mexico, death is treated as a sacred passage to the next experience. We see altars and ofrendas celebrating the life of our passed loved ones and honoring them in death.
Whether it is a somber funeral or an altar that stands up year-round, flowers are an important part of saying goodbye, expressing lasting love, and exuding emotions of grief. They soften our harsh feelings and soothe our sadness in ways that are often difficult to understand.
Humans have been connected to plants and plant life for as long as we have been human, and honestly probably for much longer. It is only natural that we would turn to nature in our difficult times, including a time of mourning.
Five Plants and Flowers that Symbolize Death
It should come as no surprise that the black rose is the ultimate symbol of death. The color black has long represented death, darkness, grief, and sadness.
The black rose is a rare flower, often a dark blue or dark purple that looks black, and sometimes a truly dyed, deep black rose. This plant has been draped across coffins, on tombs, and in vases mourning the loss of the dead for millennia.
Interestingly, while the black rose is a symbol of death and grief, it is also a representation of new beginnings, growth, and change. It’s origin story is one of horticulturalists carefully curating black-petaled roses.
Thus, when we bring these roses to mourn our dead, we know how much love and care have gone into the production of these flowers. It is truly an honor to place them among our dead.
The chrysanthemum, with its bright colors and sunny disposition, does not seem to be a death flower, but it has certainly evolved to become one. A perennial flowering plant that blooms during the colder months of the year, the chrysanthemum, or mum for short, has come to adorn funeral processions for the last several centuries.
Originally an herb grown in China for medicinal purposes, this flower began showing up at funerals in Europe around the 17th century, most likely because the white mums stand for purity in so many people’s estimation.
It is a standard color for innocence and rebirth that, in contrast to the black rose, the white chrysanthemum is hopeful of healing after the loss of a loved one.
The red poppy was never a death flower until World War I, when fields of red poppies sprung up around battlefields. Since then, the red poppy has been, perhaps, the most emblematic of remembrance and loss in western culture.
Today, thanks to those fields and the poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields,” the red poppy is the strongest symbol of death, grief, and love for our dead that we have.
Anyone who has seen the Disney movie Coco is familiar with the marigold as a symbol of death and remembrance. The altars in the movie are covered in bright orange and yellow marigolds, and the bridge to the land of the dead is made of the flowers.
It has long been true that the Aztec symbol of death is the marigold, and other cultures have embraced this representation as their own. Legend has it that marigolds attract the souls of the dead, so we can commune with them. A lovely sentiment to be sure.
Finally, no conversation about death flowers would be complete without mentioning the belladonna. Native to Asia and Europe, this plant can grow up to 5 feet tall and produces dark purple flowers and sweet berries that are both medicine and poison.
In ancient cultures, belladonna was used as a sleep aid or an anti-anxiety medication. And in others, belladonna was used as a poison. Too much will kill you.
Interestingly enough, legend tells us that Italian women used to put drops of the plant or fruit in their eyes to make themselves more “doe eyed.” The flower is a fascinating combination of love and death.
What do you think of as the ultimate death flower or the plant that most symbolizes death? I would love to hear from my readers what flowers and plants mean most to them when it comes to mourning, grief, and remembrance. Let me know in the comments.