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  • Gone Forever?
    By Jim DelPrince, AIFD

    The glory days of the floral sympathy market may hold a few lessons for today's florists.

    During the past 100 years — even the past 20 years — the American floral industry has witnessed a great deal of change in the sympathy market. Once it was considered de rigueur to send flowers to be displayed during "calling hours," and no one would have thought of doing otherwise. But with evolving attitudes about death and afterlife, customs have changed and so have sympathy designs.

    In days of old, when a prominent person in a small town died, retail shops would close; local newspapers would be printed with black borders; and funeral services would be announced on black-bordered stationery. Victorian widows were expected to keep a long mourning period, with "first mourning" lasting 366 days and the widow wearing black, caps and veils, and little or no jewelry. Other family members were also expected to wear black and avoid socializing.

    Going Home

    In the 19th century, professional floral designers were often called upon to go to the home of the deceased for consultations and design installation. To our florist forebears, this would have seemed entirely appropriate, since the deceased, as well as his floral tributes, would have been displayed in the home.

    Often at that time, flowers not only surrounded the casket or coffin, but were strewn inside. In fact, the idea of strewing a corpse with flowers dates from antiquity. In days when sanitation was primitive, the sweet fragrance of flowers would have served to disguise less agreeable odors.

    Pictures Out of Frames

    In creating sympathy and other floral designs, 19th and early 20th century florists often employed frames constructed of wire or willow. Made in every shape and size, from six inches high to several feet, the frames took such forms as stars, hearts, crosses, ships and baskets. Such frames were often used in the creation of the "set pieces" that flourished at the time. Highly symbolic, these designs were at once an expression of religious belief and a triumph of floral craftsmanship. One such was "The Broken Column." With its suggestion of a collapsed structure, it conveyed the idea of irreparable damage and loss. Generally the frames were covered in white or pastel flowers and enhanced with greenery. Often they included phrases such as "Broken Hopes."

    Sometimes florists created floral designs featuring symbols such as the cross, anchor and heart, representing faith, hope and charity. When combined with a crown, the cross suggested both Christ's and the deceased's triumphs over mortality. Also quite common were harp designs, often displaying one or two broken strings. They were meant to suggest the cessation of the sweet music created by the deceased during his or her lifetime.

    A Lifetime of Labor

    Set pieces also offered florists the opportunity to create arrangements that reflected an individual's unique contributions. It was common, for instance, to honor a deceased person with a design that evoked his particular profession. A telegraph operator, for example, might have been memorialized with a design with two miniature telegraph poles arising from a field of ferns. A broken telegraph wire would have strengthened the symbolism. An editor might have been remembered with a design resembling a newspaper inscribed in flowers or wired chenille with the words "Last Copy Finished."

    Such designs might seem sentimental to us today, but they were, in the truest sense, tributes that honored the individual. Perhaps today's trend toward personalized sympathy arrangements can help florists recapture the expressiveness of the old set pieces with meaningful, modern floral designs that both honor the deceased and comfort the bereaved.


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