In My Own Write: Say it with flowers? Or not

As one rose blooms ‘n’ another will die / It’s always been that way / I remember the showers / But no one puts flowers / On a flower’s grave – From the song by Tom Waits

rose flowers 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
rose flowers 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 vibrant.
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 withereth.”
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 sleep.”
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 occasions.
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 communities.
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.
Equally, simple white burial garments made of linen have replaced the expensive and elaborate dyed fabric shrouds that used to be ordered for the rich.
We 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 return.”
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.”
Islamic cemeteries traditionally eschew extravagance in burial procedures and favor an attitude of simplicity toward the dead and a minimalistic approach to the gravesite.
Muslim graves have small markers, and nothing for the deceased is laid on or around them – which means no flowers or other offerings.
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.
The site, 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.
The 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.
Talmudic 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.
WHEN I 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 out.”
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 Remembrance.
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 distance.
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 that simple.
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, gleams.
“Suddenly everything becomes confused,” Bialik goes on.
“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.