Thursday, May 8, 2014

Spring Blooms in the Cemetery

For many people, flowers and funerals are as natural a pairing as ashes and urns. So while we may think more often of cut flower arrangements in a funeral parlor or a “grave blanket” on a grave, we may not think about all the wonderful live flowers blooming in cemeteries in the spring. The seemingly staid statuary and dismal grey gravestones get dressed up in vivid shades of pinks, violets, reds, and whites – truly a beauty to behold. The azaleas, dogwoods, and magnolias of the northeastern United States add stunningly colorful accents to the magnificently sculpted landscapes of our memory gardens. The Victorians knew a thing or two about creative landscaping, and designed their cemeteries to be cheerful in springtime.

Being native to the northeastern United States, I have no experience with the seasonal changes of flora in other lands. In the general area in which I live, the lively and colorful flowering season of rebirth lasts about a month. Magnolias first burst forth near the end of April, while the others follow in their wake (pun intended). Over the course of the next few weeks and in rapid succession come tulips, dogwoods, lilacs, and the pink and white tufted cherry and crabapple trees that look for all the world like Dr. Seuss’ truffula trees (from The Lorax). Azaleas are the icing on the cake, finally resplendent in bright reds, pinks, lavenders, and whites, until they are gone by mid-May.

Dr. Seuss' pink-tufted truffula tree at Philadelphia's Woodlands Cemetery
I mentioned that all this flora is commonly seen in Victorian cemeteries (which is why they are called “garden” cemeteries), but the sight is far less common in the modern cemetery or memorial park. The main reason being that it is quite labor-intensive to cut the grass around large bushes and trees. Same reason you don’t see a modern cemetery landscaped like a garden cemetery with rolling hills and glens – it is much easier to cut the grass with the riding mowers if you have a large flat lawn with flat-to-the-ground grave markers. Sure, a flowering tree or a hedge may be installed for accent, but it isn’t quite the same as a Victorian cemetery, many of which were, essentially, arboretums.

Example of florid overgrowth in a cemetery

Boxwood of outlandish size
Now, as much as I enjoy buttercream roses on a birthday cake, a rose bush the size of a car can prohibit any access to the actual grave site. This can happen if the rose bush grows wild for decades. So before you plant that rose on Granny’s plot, consider the fact that someone needs to prune it. Perpetual care of a grave seldom includes any horticultural tasks aside from mowing grass and trimming weeds around a headstone. This is why cemeteries have regulations regarding what you adorn a grave with, be it tulip bulbs or a Christmas tree. Consider the diminutive boxwood, a small, slow-growing ornamental shrub sold at many nurseries. This miniscule example of arborvitae can, if left to its own devices for a few decades, grow into a sizable tree!

As an aside, regulations can sometimes go too far, and cemetery owners can change their rules from time to time. Possibly you might not be able to plant any flowers at Granny’s grave at all. A friend of mine, whose parents are buried in a particular cemetery, was recently faced with a rule change that prohibited decorations of any kind at the gravesite. She has had to resort to carrying the small angel statues and other decorations in her car. She takes these to the cemetery and decorates the graves for her visit, after which she collects the decorations and places them back in her car. Sure, it makes cutting the grass easier, but at what cost?

Magnificent flowering magnolia tree in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery

There are many cemetery companies, however, whose efforts must be applauded. Those are the companies that care for the old Victorian garden cemeteries, respecting the wishes of the original landscape architects and continue to tend the exotic trees, the hundred-year-old azaleas, the landscaping in general. We may think this is incidental work, but it is not. A monstrous elm or mighty oak looks very stately, but branches fall, damage can be done to the monuments and headstones around it. 

Damage caused by fallen tree

While imitation tree trunk monuments (example at right) do far less damage than real trees, there are less intrusive options of the living, flowering variety. Smaller, flowering ornamental trees are more practical. Cherry trees with their lovely pink blossoms do not grow to immense proportions, and therefore the roots won’t wreak havoc on those sleeping peaceably below. 
Likewise with small flowering plants. Floral symbolism, rather than the flowers themselves, may be much gentler on our seasonal allergies, entail less maintenance, and last year round, but they are merely a shadow of the life lost. Perennial bulb plants like tulips, crocuses, and daffodils offer us a much more vivid symbol of a memory kept alive. They also take up a very small amount of space and do not spread easily, if at all. Even a small yellow daffodil can add some happiness to the sparest grave site.

So get out there and enjoy the spring flowers – smell them, photograph them, paint them, let your children pick them! And remember to remember those who have gone before us. Maybe plant a flower in their memory. Since I am not a horticulturist, I leave the practical aspects of cemetery plants to the more knowledgeable:

 From the blog, A Grave Interest:
Serene and Evergreen - Cemeteries Allowing Plants and Flowers” and
eHow’s “How to Plant at the Cemetery.