One of our more enduring traditions is the honoring of the dead every first of November with prayers, candles and flowers placed on their tombs. Flowers served to honor not just the memory of the deceased, but in the distant past, they were also used to mark and identify places of burial.
In the West, flowers were imbued with meanings, and were used as forms of non-verbal communication, often to express sentiments of love and affection. Thus, three red roses meant “I love you”, while a bunch of forget-me-nots meant--well, forget me not!
Conversely, there were flowers that signified remembrance and mourning, of sadness and grief. These often became staples in fashioning bouquets, wreaths and funeral coronas, embellished with black ribbons, with the words “Recuerdo”, also created from tiny blooms.
Everlasting (Helyschrysum bracteatum) were top favorites as they lasted long and kept their brilliant colors for days. Known also as “altar flowers”, we got our supply from Baguio, through relatives living there. The same relatives also sent bunches of calla lilies few days before the undas, which we kept in the coolest part of the house--the bathroom--to prevent browning. As one knows, lillies stand for holiness, faith and purity—appropriate floral offerings for All Saints’ Day.
The fragrant ilang-ilang (Cananga odorata) meant “paglingap a tapat” (loyal care), while azucenang dilo or romantically called ‘caballero de europa’, stood for greatness. On the other hand, palomaria, locally known as bitaog (Callophylum inophyllum) symbolized care.
Perfumed jasmines presented at the tomb meant separation, but its variant—milleguas—or Tonkin jasmine, leaves a promise of “e mawale ing kekang ala-ala” (your memory will not fade away.) The passion flower—pasionaria—represented holiness, while the white adelfa meant, “magpasyal ku”—I will visit.
Orchids expressed profuse love, while sampaguita, profound sentiment. Used in context, the laurel signified a triumph over death. Of course, today, not much thought is given to the concept of floral philogy, or the language of flowers, which was all the rage from the 1920s-40s.
All that is lost in the bewildering variety of foreign-bred flowers now available to the florist (Malaysian mums, Holland tulips, stargazers) and in recent innovations in flower arranging (the use of mixed fruits-vegetable- flowers, artificial blooms of paper and plastic, why, even castaway driftwood!)
True, there are many ways to affirm our love for our dearly parted, who will always remain sacred to our memory. But none as special as expressing that feeling with the “flowery” language of flowers!