In modern times, mourning flowers are a method of sending condolences, sympathy and showing a symbolic gesture of friendship during the time of a person's passing. The history of mourning flowers, as with many other things, has changed over many centuries, as these flowers once held a completely different use.
Mourning flowers have been used in many forms since ancient time. Excavations in Iraq in 1951 found evidence that up to eight species of flowers were found at burial sites, which dated back to 62,000 years prior. According to Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, the soil samples found in the Shandiar Cave proved that no bird or animal had laid flowers at the burial sites. This find is the oldest proof of a burial tribute and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The history of mourning flowers also includes symbolism. Flowers presented at a burial ceremony or site have come to represent immortality and eternity; while the short lifespan of the flowers represents the short lifespan of man on the earth. Flowers have come to represent the entire cycle from birth through to death and the frail beauty of life during that cycle.
According to Todd Van Beck, a funeral director, mourning flowers originally were used for their fragrance and color to offset the smell of the decomposing body before the use of embalming, which did not come into practice until the 20th century. An example is the death of President Andrew Johnson, who died in 1875. The story states that Lazarus Shepard, the undertaker at the funeral, closed the president's casket, piled flowers high and used this to conceal the odor of Johnson's decomposing body.
"Flower Ladies" became a tradition in the American Midwest during the 1800s. Women given this position were placed in as high an honor as men chosen to be pallbearers. The Flower Ladies' responsibility was to move the floral arrangements from the funeral home to the burial site and set them up again in tact. This included carrying the flowers to the processional vehicle from the funeral home alongside the pallbearers, who carried the body.
The modern meaning of sending flowers to mourners is as an expression of sympathy without spoken words. The color of the mourning flowers is used as a comforting backdrop during the ceremonies. Different types of flowers have taken on different meanings as mourning flowers; lilacs represent memory, while marigolds represent grief, and rosemary is sent as a token of remembrance.