Throughout history, plants have played a symbolic role in human burial practices as parts of graveyard landscapes and on individual tombstones. The meaning of each plants can vary depending on religious affiliations.
As part of a research project done through the William L. Brown Center and University of Missouri St. Louis, Tonia O’Neal put together the following list of some more common plant depictions on monuments in St. Louis.
Almond Blossoms, Prunus dulcis, represent rebirth.
Bellflower, any species of Campanula, is a symbol for consistency, like a church bell that rings at specific times.
Carnations, dianthus caryophyllus, set at a gravestone are meant to represent the passion of Christ.
Clover, the common name for any species of Trifolium, is considered a symbol for the trinity because of its three leaf pattern. It is also a symbol of Ireland and may represent the location of the deceased’s home country.
Daisies, bellis perennis, often adorn children’s headstones because they represent innocence. The simplicity of this flower made it an early addition to tombstone iconography because it was easier to create with primitive methods.
Lilies, which are any species of Lilium, represents purity, charity, and hope.
Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis, is not a lily. It is a herbaceous perennial that produces white flowers. At gravesites, it symbolizes innocence.
Pansies, Viola × wittrockiana, are a symbol of modesty and humility.
Passion flowers, including several species of Passiflora, Passiflora caerulea, take on a Christian context, symbolizing Christ’s crucifixion, and redemption.
Roses are rich in symbolism. The meaning assigned to roses in life are also assigned to headstones. Red roses symbolize passion, white symbolize purity and peace, and yellow roses friendship.
Grapes at graves are meant to represent the blood of Christ. When paired with wheat the scene represents the Holy Communion.
Wheat, Triticum aestivum, on its own symbolizes rebirth, lifeforce, and mankind. When shown in a grouping, it represents a long life.
Olive, Olea europaea, symbolizes justice and peace, just as reflected in the expression, “to extend an olive branch.”
Hops adorn the grave of Adolphus Busch, co-founder of a brewery Anheuser-Busch. This is an example of plant iconography unique to an individual. Hops, a key ingredient in beer, represent his brewing career.
Oak trees and acorns has a long history in funeral iconography. Oak is a sacred symbol in the Celtic, Greek, Norse, and Roman cultures. Just a few of the concepts oak represents are; power, strength, stability, endurance, honor, virtue, faith, eternity, fertility, and justice.
The fig tree, different species of Ficus, is believed to be the original “Tree of Knowledge” and therefore represents knowledge, earthly happiness, abundance, and fertility.
Spruce (Picea abies) represents the resurrection of Christ and immortality.
Trees as a grave markers
Tree stones, or a the use of a tree stump or tree motif as a headstone, were prevalent during the Victorian era. They represent numerous different concepts ranging from a life cut short to skills such as carpentry. The tree stone provides the backdrop for other symbols in some cases.
Palm leaves, from any type of palm, are a symbol of a martyr’s victory over death.
Laurel, Aucuba japonica, symbolizes many things, and context may change the meaning slightly. When in the shape of a wreath, it can represent immortality and eternity. This comes from it being evergreen and the closed circle representing eternity. In the form of a crown, laurel represents victory. In some cases, it can mean military success. Surrounding iconography can help determine this.
Ivy is used on gravestones to represent many meanings. When ivy appears to cling to or climb up the headstone, it represents friendship and undying attachment. Ivy can also represents immortality.
While not technically plants, fungi have their funerary symbolism, too. Mushrooms can represent everything from a specific artisan leaving their mark on the tombstone, the fairy realm, to death itself. It depends on the formation and type of mushroom. For instance, destroying angel, amanita virosa, represents death.