GJ HISTORY: I’ll see you when the dogwood blooms
GJ HISTORY COLUMNIST
Did you ever wonder why we do things? Why do some of us place flowers on our loved ones’ headstones, while some leave rocks or coins? Why do some use different amounts of coins, like pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters on the headstones? And why do people show up to the cemetery in April when the dogwoods bloom?
My Mama, being a true daughter of the South, when reading an obituary about a member of the family and other “Dog Kin” (meaning someone further out than a second cousin) would say they had gone to Jesus and she would see them when the dogwood bloomed — meaning in April when all life breaks forth in the rebirth of spring or the Morning of the First Resurrection.
After many trips to different cemeteries over my lifetime, being a “Story Teller of the Tribe,” I wondered why there were different items on top of headstones, such as flowers, rocks and coins, placed there by loved ones.
History shows that early man didn’t just dump his dead, but were concerned about their loved ones as they passed. It did not matter if they were hunters, lived in a cave or were people who built homes. Archaeologists discovered human remains in caves of Iraq, dating back to the Neanderthal man 45,000 to 60,000 years ago. The bodies were tied in a fetal position and around the bodies were food and flower petals.
In some cultures, the deceased is honored by family and friends sitting up all night with the body. Everyone brings food and sits around eating and sharing their memories of the loved one. In earlier times this could last for days. Flowers, in addition to looking pretty, helped keep the air in the room fresh.
Many cultures from Babylon to Egypt, Polynesia and India, and Greeks and Romans all left flowers on graves in mourning. Flowers were an offering to the dead who now inhabited the afterlife.
Even Romans and Greeks who cremated their dead still left flowers to respect their deceased loved ones. It reflected on the human eternal love that flowers were chosen as an offering for the dead. Also reflected was the cycle of our lives; we’re born, we live, we die and our soul lives beyond the grave. Even today we have large bouquets of flowers or single buds, inside or outside the coffin. Flowers and petals have long symbolized the life of the deceased.
While researching for this article, I discovered that elephants have been known to bury their dead with flowers and leaves and visit the graves and bones of deceased elephants, hence “The Elephants Graveyard.”
It was during the American Civil War when embalming was first used in large numbers. The process was necessary to send the bodies of thousands of soldiers from the battlefield to their homes. At that time, flowers moved from inside the casket to the top of the casket.
Flowers are a sign of respect and love. Today, after the funeral, many people take some of their flowers to the church of their choice for their whole church family to enjoy and remember the life of their loved one.
Over time, many different cultures have used rocks to recognize their dead. Those of the Jewish faith and background placed rocks on headstones. It is believed to have come from passages in the Old Testament when piles of rocks were used as markers for important places, such as the marking of Rachel’s tomb (Genesis 35:19-20).
Rocks were also used by nomadic desert people for protecting the dead person’s remains from wild animals. As people returned to their loved one’s burial spot they brought a rock for two reasons; first, in the early days to reinforce the gravesite, and later as a sign to other visitors and passersby that the deceased person is still loved and remembered by their friends and relatives. In non-Jewish cultures, white quartz pebbles were found on the graves of early Christians and pagans on the Isle of Man, England, dating from the 6th Century A.D.
The leaving of a pebble or rock on a headstone no matter what faith is a way of saying this person was of worth and suggests the presence of love and memory of the deceased is as enduring as a rock. Psalm 18:2 refers to the “Rock of Israel” to whom the Lord will build his foundation.
The use of coins for modern-day people was inherited from pagans in the Christian world. We bury our deceased family members facing east, the direction in which Christ will come and the faithful should be facing him on that day. As mentioned above, Romans cremated their dead and it was against the law to bury someone in the city limits of Rome, thus Christians built tunnels outside the city, as did the Jewish citizens of Rome, i.e. Catacombs.
Later in history when Rome became Christian, the use of church graveyards began with headstones on the consecrated ground. Many of the early Christians were Greeks and were used to paying the ferryman, Charon, to row the deceased spirit across the River Styx to Hades. This piece of Pagan tradition was brought along when most of the Pagan Gods were left behind for Christian beliefs.
Let’s take a moment and talk about a founding father of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, who said “a penny saved is a penny earned.” He died at age 84, on April 17, 1790, of a burst, abscessed lung in Philadelphia. He was buried next to his wife, Deborah, in Christ Church Burial Grounds. More than 20,000 people gathered for his funeral. Twenty years later in 1810, a newly-married bride tossed a penny over the wall onto Franklin’s grave. She told her friends she was doing this so she would have good luck, health and wealth throughout her marriage and a tradition began. Today, the city of Philadelphia takes in a weekly average in pennies of $75, more than 1,000 pennies per day, or 390,000 pennies per year, 45 pennies per hour. This doesn’t count the nickels, dimes and quarters. Not bad for one man’s grave.
Roman soldiers would leave coins on their comrades’ graves. This continues in the present day in a different form. Today, coins mean more than paying the ferryman or bringing good luck to the living. Coins left on a soldier’s headstone, for instance, have a different meaning based on the coin left. A penny means you visited the person. A nickel means you trained with the person. A dime means you served with the person. A quarter means you were there with the person when they were killed. Coins left at most veterans cemeteries are collected and used to help maintain the cemetery.
During the Vietnam War, the political divide in the country over the war was so great that veterans would visit a comrade’s gravesite and leave a coin because it was a more practical way to communicate than contacting the soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war. As mentioned at Snopes.com, some Vietnam veterans would leave coins as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer or play a hand of cards when they would finally be reunited.
Again the tradition of leaving coins on headstones of military men and women can be traced to as far back as the Roman Empire.
THE DOGWOOD TREE
Do you know why the dogwood blooms every Easter season? A story I heard as a child from my parents is that the early Christians of the 1500s in England, Scotland and Ireland used the dogwood tree as a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion. The tree bloomed in April or Easter season, and its bright white flower is in the form of a cross, with a crown of thorns in the middle, each of the four petals has a dent like a nail and in the dent a red spot of color like that of Christ’s blood. The dogwood was planted around cemeteries for this reason. Thus, early Christians used the dogwood tree as a living Bible, telling a story about the crucifixion of Christ and his resurrection. There is a whole story of the legends of the dogwood, but the early English, Scots and Irish who came to live in the southern part of the United States planted the trees here as a remembrance. Dogwood trees flourish in the South and because of their religious connotation many trees are planted around cemeteries.
In the spring it’s time to go “fetch your tools and gather your kin” and go “yonder up across the holler” to clean off the tomb rocks (headstones) and clear off the resting grounds where your ancestors are buried. This goes to who we are, and our pride in what our ancestors were able to accomplish and how they contributed to what we are today, recognizing that here lies my ancestor, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. And when the dogwood blooms you can watch the sun shine on your ancestor’s resting spot and think it’s a good day to be alive.
So for all of you who use flowers, rocks, coins and dogwood, it shows you haven’t forgotten your loved ones.
Thus, one of the last things my mother, Esther, in a slow southern drawl, used to say to me before she passed:
“Garrrry, I will see you when the dogwood blooms.”
Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOURCES & PHOTOS: Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room, Michael Menard, Bill & Linda Buvinger, Wanda Allen, Snap Photo, Vicki Beltran, City of Grand Junction, Esther Jackson Brewer, Family History, Donna Morrison, Dogwood Garden Club; Elaine M. Jordan, Legend of the Dogwood; Dale Cox, Dogwood Tree Legend, Cemetery Traditions Coins, Franklin’s Philadelphia grave, Arlington National Cemetery Coins, Coins on Military Graves by Snopes.com, Rocks, Rocks and more Rocks, Rabbi Shraga Smimmons, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rocks of Headstones, Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz, Why Does Jewish Law Forbid Cremation, Naftali Silberberg ,Tradition of Putting Flowers Petals on the Grave of the Dead, Ehow.com., Why No Flower on Graves, Aron Moss.
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