Many plants have a message. No, I’m not talking about plants actually speaking to deliver some sort of imagination. I’m talking about symbolism — a thought or emotion conveyed by certain members of the plant kingdom.
If you think about it, it makes sense — we often have emotional responses to certain plants, especially flowers. We see their beauty, their subtle or not so subtle colors, and their fragility and it evokes an emotion within us.
While the practice has largely fallen out of favor, gifts of flowers or plants sent to a friend, a love or even an enemy, were meant to convey a certain message, especially during the Victorian era. You can find lists of plants and their “meanings” in books and online today. Red roses mean love, yellow ones jealousy and black ones may come before your enemy orders a mob hit on you. Violets stood for faithfulness, sunflowers for adoration, and rosemary for remembrance.
When friends and family pass on, most (at least in Christian traditions) observe the custom of sending flowers to the funeral. While the custom may be a show of connection to the deceased, it is more a show of sympathy and healing to the family and close friends. It conveys a message that is hard to put into words. Flowers are fragile and quickly wither, showing us the fragility of life. They remind us that life is fleeting.
There are customs, though, that go beyond the immediate remembrance at the recent passing of a loved one. Many cultures revere and hold dear the memory of those who have passed long after they are gone.
During this time of the year, there are two major customs that honor the dead from ages past — All Saints Day and Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead). Each of these observances, though they come from separate origins, are a way to honor those who have gone one before.
All Saints Day is a Christian observation that is part of a triduum (three-day) religious festival known as Allhallowtide. The celebration begins with All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), includes All Saints’ Day, and concludes with All Souls’ Day. Most churches, including mine, typically focus the celebration on All Saints’ Day.
A typical service will call attention to those who have passed on during the most recent year while celebrating those faithful who have gone on in years passed. Certain symbols may be used in the celebration to convey a message about the purpose of the day.
Often, altars will feature symbols of harvest, specifically wheat, to symbolize the end of life. The symbol for All Saints that I find most interesting is the pomegranate.
The pomegranate is meant as a symbol of resurrection. The association with the celebration is tied back to Greek mythology. The pomegranate was the symbol of Persephone, who returned every spring from Hades to regenerate the earth and bring forth spring. The structure of the fruit, with the one fruit full of so many seeds, also provides the symbolism that the one church is full of all those present and past.
All Saints’ is a celebration that I have come to love, as I remember those people who are special to me who have gone on. I think about my grandparents, who have all been long gone. This year, I will remember a homeless man named Noah, who was taken in by our church only to show us all what true love and humanity is. I get lost in the songs and the poems, the Requiems, and the remembrances. This one (which I sang) has stuck with me:
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
— Mary Elizabeth Frye
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In Mexico, many celebrate Dia de los Muertos at this time of year. This festival is indigenous to Mexico and is a veneration and celebration of family and friends who have gone on. The festival started off in the Summer, but was moved to Fall after the missionaries arrived since it had similar elements to the religious celebration of All Saints’.
The festival is celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2 and is not to be confused with Halloween (which many people do). Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve is generally regarded as a time to fear the dead as the veil between our world and the beyond becomes thin enough for the deceased to visit us. That’s where the wearing of masks came in — to hide from the spirits.
There are lots of interesting things about Día de los Muertos, including altars to the dead, sugar skulls, interesting painted skulls (there are lots of skulls) and family feasts. But what I find interesting is the use and symbolism of marigold flowers in the celebration.
Marigolds are everywhere during this celebration, especially on the altars that people erect to celebrate their loved ones. They are known as cempasúchil, or flowers of the dead. It is believed that the spirits of the loved ones come to visit, and the belief is that marigolds, with their bright colors and pungent smells, will act as a beacon to guide your loved ones to your altar.
Maybe to remember those who have gone on before, you should consider some marigolds for your garden next year. Who knows? You may just feel the presence of those you wish to remember.