Lilies are another flower associated throughout history with motherhood, and therefore are found on gravesites throughout the world.
Of course, the evergreen is popular for its symbolism as well as for its easy care. "Evergreen" is the fourth most popular cemetery name in the United States and ranks first for graveyards established before 1914.
The custom of placing flowers or flowering scrubs or trees in cemeteries seemingly comes from the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. Flowers were found, for example, in King Tut's tomb.
Deeply ingrained in the Southern cemetery custom, the use of flowers has spread to new varieties over the years. The traditional rose and lily have been joined by the gardenia, magnolia, azalea, bluebonnet, crape myrtle, nandina and others.
The iris, especially common in Southern cemeteries, is perhaps best interpreted as simply another representation of the traditional flower custom. It possesses the added advantages of helping hold the scraped earth in place and requires little care.
Tradition has it that the bloom of the common serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea (Michx. f.) Fernald, was a signal to mourners that they could bury their dead. As one of the first spring bloomers, it was believed that once the serviceberry bloomed, the ground had thawed enough from freezing winter temperatures to allow for digging graves and burial of loved ones who had passed away during a hard winter.
According to an article by Rachel Black found on the West Virginia Division of Culture and History website, the most common plants seen in cemeteries in the Appalachian region are periwinkle, vinca, yucca, cedar and other types of evergreen, holly and lilies.
"If left to their own devices, many of these will naturalize and spread over the entire cemetery and beyond," Black writes. "Periwinkle and vinca are the worst culprits. They are flowering ground covers that do just that -- cover the ground. Likewise, lilies are quite prodigious and can take over an entire cemetery in a matter of years. Yucca is a spiky, cactus-like plant that looks as if it would be much more at home in the desert than the hills of West Virginia. It too can spread over the whole cemetery if given the opportunity. The evergreens and holly tend to stay where planted a little better. Although holly can spread, it doesn't spread with the wild abandon that the groundcovers and lilies do."
In an article in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, authors surveyed 40 Muslim graveyards in northern Israel, and saw that the plants found were planted for their ritual importance: aromatics herbs (especially Salvia fruticosa and Rosmarinus officinalis), white flowered plants (mainly Narcissus tazetta, Urginea maritima, Iris spp. and Pancratium spp.) and Cupressus sempervirens as the leading cemetery tree.
The use of white flowers in cemeteries reflects an old European influence. Most of the trees and shrubs that are planted in Muslim cemeteries in Israel have the same use in ancient as well in modern European cultures.
Reach Sara Busse at sara.bu...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.