Victorian Funerary and Decoration Day

On the farm we still adhere to the traditions set out by our Great-Grandfather Elling Emmanuel Tostenson, who in the mid 1800s after the death of his wife Jorand began picnicking and visiting the cemeteries as a family.

The Victorians changed the entire meaning of death in America, taking on a romantic veil of family vigilance.

The main barrier between us and the Victorians is not the heroic attitude towards death; it’s their romance with death, beautifully embodied in rural Victorian Cemeteries. In the late 1800s, the term Church Grave Yard was replaced with the Greek word Cemetery, meaning “Sleeping Peace”; thus our loved ones were sleeping in peace, or asleep in Christ. Another change was made as well: the term Coffin was replaced with yet another Greek in origin word, Casket, meaning “jewel box, or a place of safe keeping for precious items.”

Cemeteries were to be peaceful, restful places of solitude and tranquility. Families would visit six times a year: Easter Sunday, Decoration Day, All Saints Day, Ascension Sunday, and the deceased’s Birthday, as well as Christmas. On these days flowers or a wreath were presented in honor of the lost loved one. They would lovingly tend to these romantic, serene spaces. It was on these days leisure like activities were afforded in the form of picnics and family gatherings.

These cities of the dead, as the Victorians called them were the forbearers of today’s parks, which may help us understand this tradition.

There remains until this day a great deal of iconography of mourning within these cemeteries, carved onto the statues and monuments. Here are just a few and what they represent:

Ivy: represents fidelity
Lily: represents a resurrected life
Anchor: represents hope
Roses: represents a faithful life
Tree Stump: represents a life cut short
Horn: represents victory in life everlasting
Arch: represents victory over death
Arrows: represent mortality
Candle with flame: represents life
Crowns: represent eternal life
Harps: represent worshiping in heaven
Hour Glass: represents a short life
Keys: represent the keys to the eternal kingdom
Greek oil lamp: represents knowledge
Staff: represents comfort
Scythe: represents a divine harvest
Sea Shell: represents a pilgrim’s journey
Winged face: represents the soul of the deceased
Winged wheel: represents the Holy Spirit
Empty Chair: represents the family patriarch
Fleur-de-lis: represents motherhood

Not only were these monuments carved with great meaning, so were the epitaphs lovingly thought out:

Affection weeps, while heaven rejoices
All I refuse and thee I choose
Angels weep, when children mourn
Gone but not forgotten
Asleep in Christ
Not lost, but gone before
Weep not, for I fall to rise again
Virtue lives beyond the grave
What thou hast lost, Heaven has in store
Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season

Great care was given to the final resting place of loved ones lost. Once the monument was erected and the inscription carved, the family would then choose what plantings to place around the space that best represented their feelings about the deceased. As you can see from these few selections, cemeteries were indeed beautiful and park like. Not only were trees planted but on the grave itself flowers would cover their loved one.

Funerary Plantings

Trees of Mourning:

Cypress Trees: represented Hope
Dogwood Trees: represented Triumph of Eternal Life
Oak Trees: represented Honor and Eternity
Yew Trees: represented Sadness
Weeping Willow Trees: represented Sorrowful Mourning


Planted in a rectangle around the grave, they filled the cemeteries with beautiful color.
Acacia: represented the parting of the soul
Acanthus: represented a Heavenly garden
Anemone: represented one Forsaken
Bay Leaf: represents I change but in death
Bee Balm: represents in deep sympathy
Bell Flower: represents in deep gratitude
Blue Bells: represent with deep constancy
Buttercups: represent given up in cheerfulness
Calla Lily: represents a marriage broken in death
Red Carnations: represents lost beauty
Chrysanthemums: represent I will always love you
Daffodils: represent with deepest regards
Daisies: represent the loss of the righteous son
Ivy: represents Eternal Life and Friendship
Lily of the Valley: represent innocence of the soul at death
Morning Glories: represent sadly departed
Poppies: represent Eternal sleep

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