Few people, I imagine, remain unmoved at the sight of flowers growing in gardens
or gathered into bouquets.
Each bloom is lovely, but for many, myself
included, none can match the exquisite delicacy of the rose.
Yet even as
we delight in flowers’ beauty we know it is transitory, and that awareness is
bittersweet. There is something heart-wrenching about the
here-today-gonetomorrowness of what we currently see before us, vital and
So it is with our human selves along the trajectory of our
lives. As Psalm 90 observes, we “are like grass which groweth up... In the
morning it flourisheth... In the evening it is cut down, and
Flowers’ poignant combination of beauty, vitality and
impermanence, mirroring the transience of our own existence on earth, has surely
impressed more than one mourner laying a wreath, bouquet or single bloom on the
grave of a relative or friend.
White or arum lilies, seen as symbolizing
the restored innocence of the soul at death, are chosen for many Christian
burials. A quaint English custom dating back to Victorian times is the floral
pillow expressing mourners’ wish that the departed enjoy a “peaceful
White or yellow chrysanthemums are traditional funeral flowers
for those following Chinese, Korean and Japanese custom. Similarly pale blooms
are sent to bereaved Hindu families, while flowers made up in the shape of the
Sikh Khanda emblem honor departed members of that faith.
For many people
across different cultures, then, it must feel particularly apt to show love and
respect for their deceased with flowers.
BUT NOT for Jews. Although some
Jewish cemeteries allow flowers on graves, most discourage or actively prohibit
them. This has often piqued my curiosity as I have left Jewish funerals thinking
that flowers would surely help lighten what are, after all, very sad and somber
Moreover, why not have flowers at a Jewish funeral, since the
prohibition is not so much a matter of law as of custom? There is actually a
halachic issue over planting flowers or shrubs on a grave since it is forbidden
to derive any benefit from its earth. But why forbid the mere placing of
flowers, which anyway won’t last long? The reason commonly cited is hukkat
hagoy, gentile practice. In ancient times, idolators would put flowers or
incense on a grave, emulation of which was discouraged among Jewish
Jewish usage has come to be one of simplicity and equality
in all aspects of a funeral – an attitude one can applaud, picturing the lengths
to which some wealthy families might otherwise go in purchasing ostentatious
floral displays that poorer families clearly couldn’t afford.
simple white burial garments made of linen have replaced the expensive and
elaborate dyed fabric shrouds that used to be ordered for the rich.
all come into this world in the same elemental way, and it seems fitting that we
all should depart it similarly.
First-time attendees at an Israeli
funeral are often taken aback to see the deceased buried in a simple tallit or
prayer shawl, without coffin or casket. This too, follows ancient Jewish
practice, as stated in Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall
Even where there is a coffin, it tends to be made out of soft
wood, which quickly decomposes.
A YOUTUBE promotional video produced by
Molly Blooms of London includes florist Kelly Smith warning viewers that some
faiths and cultures follow a “No flowers” rule. In this category she includes
“Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews,” and notes that “Jewish
custom is to make a donation to the Jewish National Fund, which plants a tree in
Israel in the name of the deceased.”
“If one wants to spend money to
honor the deceased,” commented an Orthodox rabbi I turned to, “it seems better
to support a cause that works for the welfare of the living.”
cemeteries traditionally eschew extravagance in burial procedures and favor an
attitude of simplicity toward the dead and a minimalistic approach to the
Muslim graves have small markers, and nothing for the deceased
is laid on or around them – which means no flowers or other
TALKING OF ancient times, press reports earlier this month
highlighted an international team headed by archeologists from Haifa University
that found floral remains – the impressions of plant stems – at a prehistoric
burial site unearthed at the Rakefet Cave on Mount Carmel.
dated as being between 11,700 and 13,700 years old, belonged to the Natufians,
who lived in the Stone Age and were among the last hunter-gatherers in the
region of the Land of Israel. It seems they used flowers to decorate a place of
burial, as well as the slab on which they laid their dead.
archeologists discovered traces of aromatic plants including mint, figwort and
sage and surmised that the herbs’ use was twofold: to mask the stench of
decomposing bodies and to keep rats and other vermin at bay.
sources record the placing of myrtle twigs on the bodies of the deceased, and
there are halachic works that even permit the twigs to be cut on the second day
of a festival, when such activity would normally be prohibited.
mentioned the topic of this column to a friend, he added a comment of his own:
“At my aunt’s recent funeral in Herzliya’s new cemetery, a secular mourner – not
a family member, but close to the family – asked me if she could place flowers
at the ‘grave’ during the service” (the new cemetery has no graves as such, but
is burying the dead in three tiers of burial chambers).
“My advice was to
wait until after the service and leave them on the ledge,” he went on. “That
way, the wellmeaning mourner could feel that her expression of condolence was
appreciated, while, at the same time, more Orthodox mourners would not be put
My friend’s view is that burial traditions evolve, and “what counts
is sensitivity to the values of the immediate family.”
As a matter of
interest, he reminded me that official Israeli funeral and commemoration
ceremonies do feature flowers. For example, a July 2012 press photo shows
President Shimon Peres laying a wreath on the fresh grave of former prime
minister Yitzhak Shamir. And last week, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, the US’s
only Jewish governor, visited Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in the Hall of
COMMON JEWISH practice is for funeral attendees and those
visiting cemeteries to place a stone on a grave, both as a mark of respect and
to show that the deceased is remembered.
The custom probably arose in
ancient times, when graves were topped with cairns whose stones may have been
thought to deter scavengers and grave robbers; or to warn Kohanim, members of
the Jewish priestly caste who are forbidden contact with the dead, to keep their
Possibly, too, among communities where superstition held sway,
the stones were intended to stop the dead from rising.
SO IS it a
question of flowers vs stones at Jewish funerals? If you’re talking color and
beauty, it’s no contest of course.
But suddenly it doesn’t feel quite
Now that I’ve looked into the subject a bit more, I might be
content to express my love for flowers on joyful occasions: Sabbaths and
festivals, weddings, birthdays and other celebrations, and feel no regret that
they are not traditionally accepted at Jewish funerals.
In a fascinating
and still very relevant 1915 essay called “Gilui Vekisui Belashon” – “What
language reveals, and what it conceals” – Haim Nachman Bialik writes about the
emptiness of the everyday words we so confidently bandy about, believing we are
engaging in genuine communication. In contrast, he focuses on the one rare
moment when someone dies.
In that moment, he says, the word-armor we have
constructed which normally protects us from confronting our innermost selves
cracks open, and “the abyss,” with all its terrifying existential questions,
“Suddenly everything becomes confused,” Bialik goes
“The unknown X-factor looms before us in all its formidableness – and
we sit there on the ground, confronting it for a moment, mourners in the
darkness, silent as stones.”
Death is, indeed, a time when “the abyss,”
with all it contains, opens up in front of us, however briefly. Perhaps it is
something to be faced in awesome silence – and with stones, rather than flowers.