My father was dying. He looked me square in the eyes from his hospital bed, a shell of a man from the once strapping football player he had been — muscular and sinewy, fast as a cheetah — and said, “Make sure there are a lot of flowers at the viewing.”
Why wouldn’t he say that? My pop was a florist for 50 years and was certain — witnessed it a thousand times — that flowers played a spiritual role in death. He believed that flowers, like sunsets and rainbows, were gifts from God.
We are in the summa cum secular age now, when living, it seems, is stripped of spiritual meaning. It seems that only when many of us are facing death does spiritual meaning take on a larger dimension. It is then that we want to believe that death is not separation but transformation, not termination but transcendence.
Flowers help us to view death with a hopeful promise; flowers are a sign, a symbol of a new, more pure life. It is no coincidence that churches adorn their altars during Easter season with the lily. The tall, erect, trumpet-shaped flower is an eloquent herald of a new season in heaven, its radiance resonating promise as surely as a stained-glass window spilled on by slants of sunshine.
Even science has now begun to apprehend the effects of flowers on our lives and surroundings. A recent Rutgers University study showed that in anxious, uncertain times, such as death, flowers are a blissful necessity.
But I didn’t need some study to tell me that. I grew up with flowers in my blood.
Source of comfort
For 25 years I worked side by side with my pop in his little flower shop in the Paradise section of Philadelphia, and so many times I heard the family and friends of a deceased person say to him: “Thank you, the flowers meant so much to us. They were a source of strength and peace.”
So, yes, flowers are important guests at death; they help to bring peace to death, a spiritual warmth to what is often a temporal-cold occasion. Death, so fraught with mystery and sorrow, can be eased and explained by the presence of flowers, for flowers bloom beyond the tears and fears in death — flowers are spiritually immortal as our soul. It is the reason why I abhor the “in lieu of” suggestion in death notices, which means in place of flowers, please give money to some charity or to some organization.
I would rather call on the attributes of flowers in times of death: continuity, renewal, inspiration, faith, spirituality, peace. “Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink” (Ex 17:6). I feel it’s the same with flowers.
Substitute for silence
So, in the funeral parlor on the day my father was to be buried, I made sure his dying request would be granted. There was a bounty of flowers: A huge spray of bulbous white chrysanthemums spread the length of the casket; baskets of white gladioli shot out of containers at the head and foot of the casket; a rose rosary lay in his hands; a standing bleeding heart of red carnations and 25-30 other arrangements, one after another, circled the room like a necklace.
I made them. In that hushed funeral parlor, they were the other side of the silence.
These days, whenever I go to a funeral and see the flowers, I see my pop’s reflection in them. The memories of how flowers have played not only a role in my view of death but also in my perspective of life are so vivid.
I am the son of a florist, so I know that flowers are language when words aren’t. Flowers help to draw life out of death. In death there are no tin flowers.
B.G. Kelley writes from Pennsylvania.