CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Memorial Day weekends, I always wonder about the families connected to the cemetery on our little road. Most years, the plastic flowers placed on the old graves are refreshed with newer, sturdier versions. It's becoming harder and harder for the families who have loved ones interred there to visit, let alone maintain the property properly. Neighbors often take on the task, but it's tedious because of the uneven ground and the random pattern of the graves.
Fresh flowers, sadly, are never used. There's a beautiful lilac that blooms each spring, but even it looks a bit tired.
Thinking of the lilac (one of my mom's favorites) made me do a bit of research on cemetery plantings and flowers.
Cemetery flowers in the South have come full circle -- from clean-scraped ground, to elaborate plantings, to the simple, easy-to-mow modern versions of today.
According to SouthernGraves.com, a website that chronicles traditions of the Southern cemetery, the Southern folk cemetery "is characterized by hilltop location, scraped ground, mounded graves, east-west grave orientation, creative grave markers and decorations using materials readily available (not commercially produced), certain species of vegetation, the use of grave shelters, and the obvious devotion to God and/or parents and family with the graveyard workdays and monument dedications."
The most distinctive trait of the pioneer folk cemetery of the South was the ground scraped clean of grass. The graves were laid out in an east-west direction, neatly aligned and mounded with dirt. This cleared patch of land, free of grass and weeds, was often found on a hilltop. It would have been scraped a couple times of year, possibly resulting in a hardened surface. The clean cemetery showed honor and respect for the ancestors buried there.
In "Texas Graveyards, A Cultural Legacy," Terry Jordan describes a Southern cemetery with a scraped ground: "The first glimpse of such a cemetery truly startles the unsuspecting visitor. Throughout the burial ground, the natural grasses and weeds have been laboriously chopped or 'scraped' away, revealing an expanse of red-orange East Texas soil or somber black prairie earth, sometimes decorated with raked patterns. At each grave, this dirt is heaped in an elongated mound, oriented on an east-west and anchored by a head and foot stone."
Grave mounds served several purposes, such as marking the grave and compensating for the settling of the grave.
After this early period of barren cemeteries came the plots with some grass, and the addition of magnolia, crape myrtle, cedar, evergreens and flowering shrubs such as roses, azaleas and forsythia. All were native, no-care plants.
One of the most common flowers in a Southern cemetery is the rosebush. According to Angelfire.com, "so common are roses in southern cemeteries that even the names of the graveyards often derive from this plan; one finds numerous 'Rose Hills' and 'Rose Lawns.'"
Roses are associated with motherhood as early as in pagan ritual and throughout Roman and English history, as well as their association with the Virgin Mary.