Putting flowers on graves

Putting flowers on graves May 25, 2015

Many of us will observe Memorial Day by putting flowers on the graves of loved ones.  This custom seems almost universal.  In fact, archaeologists studying the burial site of a stone-age woman have found that the cave dwellers put flowers on her grave.

It’s a beautiful, touching custom.  It feels deeply meaningful, but what does it mean?  Why do you think people do this?

From Stone Age mourners ‘placed flowers on graves’ – Telegraph:

Placing flowers on the graves of loved ones seems to be as old as mankind, a new study suggests.

Remains of fossilised pollen were found on the decorative tomb of a Stone Age woman known as the Red Lady found in the El Mirón cave at Cantabria, Spain.

The reddish colour of the bones and the sediment in which they lie point to the use of ochre as part of the interment while engravings suggest a ritual burial.

Archaeologists found the remains date back more than 16,000 years ago and come from a period when the ice age was retreating and the climate was improving.

The flowers would have been colourful in an overwise drab environment and their appearance in the cave did not seem “natural.”

Maria Jose Iriarte of the University of the Basque Country said: “They put whole flowers on the tomb, but it has not been possible to say whether the aim of placing plants was to do with a ritual offering for the dead person, or whether El Mirón cave was inhabited between the Middle Palaeolithic and the Bronze Age and therefore contains a significant archaeological deposit.”

However she ruled out these plants may have been used for food or therapeutic purposes and added “the most plausible hypothesis is that complete flowers were placed on the tomb.

“It has not been possible to say whether the aim of placing these plants was to give the dead woman a ritual offering, or whether they fulfilled a more simple purpose linked, for example, to hygiene or cleansing.

“With their small, generally white or yellowish flowers we would not regard them as colourful plants today although we cannot apply the Principle of Actualism to human conduct in these merely aesthetic matters.”

It is worth lingering awhile on the scientist’s speculation.  The Principle of Actualism is the assumption that what holds true in the present holds true in the past.  She dismisses “merely aesthetic matters” and speculates that the flowers might have been a ritual offering to the dead person.  But maybe the human being who lived in caves was essentially the same as human beings who who live in climate-controlled houses and was motivated by the same impulse.  Maybe what holds true in the past holds true in the present.

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