Death

In spite of its reputation as a protective tree, BIRCH has its more sinister side. Take, for instance, the ballad, The Wife of Usher's Well:

It fell about the Martinmass, When nights are lang and mirk, The carlin's wife three sons came hame And their hats were of the birk It neither grew in dyke nor ditch

Nor yet in one sleugh;

But at the gates o' Paradise

That birk grew fair enough.

In other words, the birch grew at the gates of paradise, and it furnished the ghosts with their "hats o' birk". It is a sacred tree, and traditionally the tree of death. To dream of pulling the "birk sae green" portends death in the Braes o' Yarrow. A "wand o' bonny birk" is laid on the breast of the dead in Sweet William's Ghost (Wimberley).

ROSES too have connections with death, though they are thought of mainly as symbols of love. As far back as ancient Greece, they were used at funerals, and tombs were decorated with them, under the belief that they protected the remains of the dead. The Romans also believed this, and they even celebrated a festival of the dead under the name of Rosalia. It was a Welsh custom to plant a white rose on the grave of an unmarried woman (Knight), and there is a Scandinavian story to the effect that three white roses will grow from the grave of a virgin (Mayhew). It was the custom in parts of England for a young girl to carry a wreath of white roses, and walk before the coffin of a virgin. The wreath would be hung in church after the funeral, above the seat that she had used during her life. It is usually a rose or roses that grow from the graves of two lovers. Evelyn mentions "the custom not yet altogether extinct in my own native county of Surrey, and near my dwelling, where the maidens yearly plant and deck the graves of their defunct sweet-hearts with rose-bushes". The custom was so common in Switzerland that cemeteries were often known as rose gardens there (Mayhew). So great is the connection between roses and the dead that apparently spirits at seances are using roses now as symbols of affection and goodwill (Knight). MADONNA LILIES too have an association with death. They grow from the graves of people unjustly executed as a token of the person's innocence (Grimm), and from the grave of a virgin three lilies spring, which may only be gathered by her lover (Dyer). This association with death makes them generally unlucky plants to have in the house (Vickery. 1985), but of course they are often used at funerals. MYRTLE, in spite of its connection with weddings, is also a tree of death, particularly, in Greek mythology, the death of kings (Graves). Perhaps that is why there is such a prejudice against it in America. It is rarely seen there outside cemeteries (H M Hyatt). In modern Egypt, sprigs of myrtle are laid on the graves of relatives, and also apparently placed underneath the body (Westermarck). In parts of France, too, it was at one time the custom to put the last branch of myrtle that had belonged to the dead man into the coffin with him (Sebillot). Another plant with ambivalent virtues is PERIWINKLE. It has its connection with weddings and fertility, but also with death. It is a "Flower of Death" in Wales, and fiore di morte in Italy, where garlands of the plant were put on the coffins of dead children. It was evidently planted on graves in Wales, for there was a belief there that uprooting one from a grave, would very well result in a haunting by the person buried there (Trevelyan). In medieval England, condemned men were forced to wear garlands of periwinkle on their way to the gallows (Emboden. 1974). BLACKTHORN flowers are extremely unlucky things to bring indoors; if it comes to that, virtually any white flowers in the house bring dire results. But more fuss seems to be made about the blackthorn than anything else. Sussex people looked on it as a death token (Latham); in Suffolk, too, they used to say that it would foretell the death of some member of the family (Gurdon). And in Somerset, it would mean that you would hear of a death (Tongue. 1965). SNOWDROP is another of the white flowers that are so unlucky to bring indoors. Taking them into a hospital is even more unlucky. If given to a patient, it was taken to be a death sentence. Nurses would sometimes put a few ivy leaves among them to lessen the fate (Tongue. 1967). It is said that the association of snowdrops with death (they used to be called Death's Flower in Somerset) is because of the flower's resemblance to a shroud (Vickery. 1985). "It looked for all the world like a corpse in its shroud" was how one of Charlotte Latham's informants put it. TUBEROSE is unlucky, too, in American belief, possibly because of its waxy appearance, like death. Others think they emit the odour of death, still others that if you shut yourself in a room with tuberoses, the scent will kill you (H M Hyatt).

BROAD BEANS, besides being a fairy food, are also the food of the dead, or according to another tradition, they contain the souls of the dead (Waring). At any rate, they were sacred to them. They were a favourite offering to the departed in ancient Greece, and for this reason they were forbidden to his followers by Pythagoras. Pliny said that beans were used in sacrificing to the dead because the souls of the dead were in them. Eventually, they were used at funerals in classical times, a use that found its way to northern England, where the tradition used to be (at least in the 1890s) that broad beans should always be buried with the coffin (Pope). Children used to recite:

God save your soul,

Beans and all (Tongue).

TANSY, as a word, comes from the Greek for immortality, perhaps because the flowers take a long time to wither, but more likely because the plant was used for preserving dead bodies from corruption (Grieve.1931). Ann Leighton had this quotation: "Samuel Sewall has recorded observing the body of a friend long dead but well preserved in his coffin packed full of tansy". PRIMROSES, too, were used to dress up a corpse in the coffin (Latham), and were strewn on graves.

CYPRESS is the symbol of death and mourning, and for that reason there was a superstition that it should never be cut, for fear of killing it (Evelyn. 1678). Both the Greeks and the Romans called it the "mournful" tree, because it was sacred to the rulers of the underworld, and to the Fates and Furies. As such, it was the custom to plant it by the grave, and, when a death occurred, to put it either in front of the house or in the vestibule, in order to warn those about to perform a sacred rite against entering a place polluted by a dead body (Philpot). And it is the very durability of the timber (plus the fact that it is insect-proof) that made it desirable from ancient Egyptian times onwards for making the coffins of the rich. Modern Greeks still use it for this purpose (Moldenke & Moldenke). Funerary rites are performed by the side of the MAHUA tree (Bassia latifolia) by the Gonds of southern India. It is the tree of death, and as such the rites there are the final ones in mortuary ceremonies (Furer-Haimendorff).

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