Flowers For The Dead
July 15, 2013

Flowers For The Dead

All over the world, people go to gravesites to pay their respects and remember their loved ones. Whether that gravesite is at a cemetery, mausoleum, or a place where the surviving loved ones spread the ashes, people will go and often bring something. Sometimes it is a little trinket or a letter, but usually people bring flowers. In today’s world, many cemeteries only allow fake flowers that never die, but some still support real flowers. And apparently bringing flowers to the dead is a long-standing tradition.

As National Geographic reported on its website, the Natufian culture of 12,000 years ago definitely put flowers in and around the graves. As the article explains, “Scented flowering plants, such as mint and sage, were imprinted in soft mud after they decomposed some 12,000 years ago in the graves, which are located in a cave on northern Israel’s Mount Carmel.”

The study is the first with definitive proof that ancient mourners lined graves with flowers. In fact, the Natufians may have been the first to use flowers during burial to honor their dead loved ones. As of right now, that is the case at least. Up to this study, only one other older potential site was known.

“The only potentially older instance of funerary flowers is a dusting of pollen found at the site of an approximately 70,000-year-old grave of a Neanderthal dubbed Shanidar IV in Iraq. However, some scientists have argued that holes found at that site were made by burrowing rodents that stored seeds and flowers in the grave.”

Obviously, enough speculation about whether the pollen is from flowers of honor or a rodent’s dinner exists to keep this site from being the oldest. However, the Natufian site has no such alternative explanation. Clearly, the Natufians laid flowers as part of the burial. The study leader Daniel Nadel, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, said that just because there is not proof of earlier use of flowers for dead loved ones does not mean that peoples were not doing it. All it means is that scientists have not found proof yet. And proof of flowers is hard to find because “Finding such flowers is very difficult,” Nadel said. “Asking for such preservation is asking for a lot.”

Yet, Nadel and his team found the Natufian site with flowers. Amazing.

Likely the first to transition from a roaming hunter-gatherer lifestyle to permanent settlements, the Natufian society was the first to develop true graveyards. This further provides support for their usage of flowers as part of honor and respect for dead loved ones. If they were settled enough to have permanent graveyards, then naturally ceremonies of remembrance would follow, and most place flowers at gravesites to remember their loved ones.

Still, what I find most interesting about archaeology is what we learn. Studies like this one give a glimpse into a distant past, a time when cars did not exist let alone other major technology. Naturally, we romanticize it as a simpler time, but these people had their own woes from which to suffer. Yet both the Natufian culture and our own modern culture are connected through our ways of memorializing. Flowers at a grave are one way we are bound to a past long forgotten.

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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