(Image credit: Flickr user Sean Birmingham)
The tradition of flowers being placed on graves is over 2,000 years old. This custom can be traced to the ancient Greeks. They performed rites over graves that were called "zoai.”
Flowers were placed on the graves of Greek warriors. It was believed that if the flowers took root and blossomed on the graves, the souls of the warriors were sending a message that they had found happiness in the next world.
The ancient Romans also used flowers to honor soldiers who had died in battle. The Romans held an elaborate eight-day festival during February called "Parentalia" (Day of the Fathers). During this festival, roses and violets were placed on the graves of fallen soldiers by friends and family members.
According to acclaimed historian Jay Winik, the tradition began in America at the end of the Civil War. It started after a train had delivered Abraham Lincoln to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Winik writes: “Searching for some way to express their grief, countless Americans gravitated to bouquets of flowers: lilacs, roses, and orange blossoms, anything which was in bloom across the land. Thus was born a new tradition: laying flowers at a funeral.”
Following Lincoln's burial, people all over the country began decorating the graves of the more than six hundred thousand soldiers who had been killed- especially in the South, where organized women's groups also placed banners on the graves of soldiers.
The practice became so widespread that in 1868, General John Alexander Logan- the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran's group- issued an order designating May 30 as a day for "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”
The day was originally called Decoration Day, but it later became Memorial Day. On May 30, 1868, thousands gathered at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to decorate more than twenty thousand graves of Civil War soldiers. In 1873, New York became the first state to declare Decoration Day a legal holiday.
Today, the tradition is stronger than ever. In addition to being placed on graves, flowers are often displayed in funeral homes and churches for burial services. The most elaborate arrangements are positioned around the casket, perhaps hearkening back to the belief of the ancient Greeks that a flower in bloom signifies happiness in the afterlife.
Even in the secular world, flowers seem to be a token of esteem and admiration someone feels for the deceased.
It is worth noting that the biggest day of flower sales in history was the day Elvis Presley died- August 16, 1977.