Human beings have often sought meaning in times of intense grief or loss. In the search for reason and comfort in sorrow, people can attach certain attributes to objects, places and other living things as having some connection to the loss of a loved one. The world of plants is no exception.
For many people, there is something reassuring in a bloom, that it can offer the potential for renewal and provide a sweetness, both for the living in their grief, and as a final gesture of love and respect for the departed. Yet, as with many things, there can be a duality with the role plants can play in our lives as well as with our deaths.
Of all the plants that have come to symbolize death in the modern world, perhaps none other than the lily does it better. More often than not, lilies are offered as gestures of respect to the deceased and their families during funerals. But how did this flower come to be such an integral part of the funeral rite? Who saw it first as a representation of death and as a way of expressing grief and respect? And perhaps, more importantly, why?
The classical world of Greeks and Romans held the lily in a high esteem, seeing purity in the whiteness of its blooms. Even the goddess Venus was said to have envious of its beauty, no small feat for a simple flower. The lily was also popular in the ancient Jewish traditions, being associated also with purity, as well as chastity. As Christianity rose from the same region, its followers also adopted a similar view of the lily and came to think it symbolized the virgin Mary, then later associated it with saints and martyrs. This last adaptation could have led to the lily being laid on the graves of the innocent, which in turn, continued on to symbolize the restoration of innocence after death for anyone.
In other parts of the world, lilies are not so well-revered. The red spider lily, botanically known as lycoris radata, is associated with Hell, or Diyu in Japanese and by Huangquan in Chinese. This particular species of lily is thought to grow in the underworld and therefore, to lead the dead through the various levels of Hell towards re-incarnation.
A highly poisonous plant that could indeed lead towards the afterlife, as it were, the red spider lily is often cultivated near and around rice field in Japan as pest control against mice and rats. This flower can often be found in and around cemeteries, used long before embalming came into practice. The bulbs were planted on top of fresh graves, also as a deterrent against wild animals that would otherwise try to scavenge the dead.
Coincidentally, red spider lilies will come to bloom at the time of the autumnal equinox. As with many agricultural societies, the Japanese held great significance in seasonal changes. This could have given rise to the belief that the flower was welcoming the end of a natural cycle, signaling the time for death, and to withdraw down into the underworld and await renewal.
During this time, it is customary for Japanese families to visit the tombs of their ancestors, tend to any needed maintenance, and leave offerings. Many times, red spider lilies are left as a show of respect, most especially in Buddhist traditions that also include rituals that welcome the arrival of fall. One particular day of celebration, Higan, means “to reach the other shore”, which can refer to both physical death as well as removing what hinders us towards peace and enlightenment.