Friday, February 24, 2012

Ivy Covered Graves

Cemeteries abound with flowers, trees and plantings – all manner of living things with which to remember those who have passed.  It is not unusual to come across a grave or two that is covered in ivy.  In older cemeteries, especially Victorian and Rural Garden cemeteries, ivy was a perpetual favorite, blanketing many graves, both carved in stone and living plants. It has been said, "Ivy still mourns when others have forgotten the dead."

Ivy symbolizes many attributes.  Among them are friendship, affection, faithfulness, strength, and immortality.  The Celts viewed ivy as an omen of death and spiritual rebirth. The Druids associated ivy with strength and determination. Ivy grows in twists and turns, providing a strong, durable bond to all that it touches. In the Christian religion, ivy is a symbol of Christmas and rebirth.

The ivy plant is native to Europe and grows naturally in cemeteries throughout England.  Although a pretty vine, ivy has a reputation of causing harm to gravestones, brick walls, and trees. 

Recent studies conducted in Europe indicated that the climbing roots of the ivy did not damage solidly mortared walls.  Research also showed that ivy actually protected walls and cemetery stones from further damage caused by the effects of weathering, drastic temperature changes and pollution.

 In the U.S., problems have proven to be more significant since ivy does not have any natural enemies to control its growth.  American trees are overwhelmed by ivy and die due to disease or aggressive ivy growth.  We Americans transplanted ivy to our cemeteries during the Victorian age as symbols of immortality.  In many cases the ivy has proven to be very durable by taking over tombstones and graveyards. 

Cemetery restoration groups will leave an ivy vine as part of the original planting, as they work to maintain the status of the burial grounds and the tomb stones.  But cemeteries throughout the country have implemented management control procedures to deal with ivy and it’s potential damaging effects on monuments and stones.  Many will no longer allow ivy to be planted.

As intended by those who originally planted it, ivy lends a shot of color onto the otherwise dark and drab winter cemetery grounds, and gives us hope for renewal and immorality.

In 1836, Charles Dickens wrote a poem that appeared in his novel Pickwick Papers about the ivy:

Ivy Green

Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,

That creepeth o'er ruins old!

Of right choice food are his meals, I ween,

In his cell so lone and cold.

The wall must be crumbled, the stone decayed,

To pleasure his dainty whim:

And the mouldering dust that years have made

Is a merry meal for him.

Creeping where no life is seen,

A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,

And a staunch old heart has he.

How closely he twineth, how tight he clings

To his friend the huge Oak Tree!

And slyly he traileth along the ground,

And his leaves he gently waves,

As he joyously hugs and crawleth round

The rich mould of dead men's graves.

Creeping where grim death hath been,

A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,

And nations have scattered been;

But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,

From its hale and hearty green.

The brave old plant, in its lonely days,

Shall fatten upon the past:

For the stateliest building man can raise

Is the Ivy's food at last.

Creeping on where time has been,

A rare old plant is the Ivy green.
                           ~ Charles Dickens

~ Joy

Friday, February 17, 2012

Undertaking Death

It is inevitable - we will all die. And for most of us a funeral or memorial service will be held. But what is the advantage of this service?  Why do we expect it, and continue to do it?  Who really benefits from it?

Funeral Rites
Funeral rites have always been a part of our civilization.  All successful cultures have believed that the dead needed attended to in a proper manner. Burial grounds dating back to 60,000 BC show that gifts were left next to the body and rituals were performed - by Neanderthal man.

There are three conditions that are always found when dealing of the dead:

1) Funeral rites, ceremonies or rituals are held
2) The dead are taken to a sacred place to be left
3) The dead are memorialized in some manner

Many death rites and ceremonies were based in fear. They were used to protect the living from evil spirits that were associated with being in or near the dead body.

Sacrifices were offered after a death to appease these evil spirits, or to assist the deceased into another world.

Today, many of our funeral customs are still based in pagan rituals. 

For example:
Lighting candles was originally a way to keep evil spirits at bay while dealing with the dead.

Covering the deceased’s face with a cloth was actually done to stop their spirit from escape through the mouth, possibly stopping death from taking them.

Mourning clothes came about in order to fool returning spirits who might want to take others with them.

Wakes were originally held to make sure that the person was dead and did not ‘wake’ up.

Sending flowers with the body was a way of gaining favor with the dead.

Funeral music began as ancient chants used to pacify the spirits.

The tolling of bells began during medieval times as a way to warn evil spirits away.

Gathering after the funeral for food and fellowship began as a way to offer food to the gods or deceased for special favors.

Why Embalm?
In ancient times, embalming was done so that the soul would not leave the body.  It was believed that the soul would stay as long as the body was intact. Embalming was also done for sanitary reasons.

Dr Thomas Holmes
In America, embalming became accepted during the Civil War. President Lincoln was interested in a way to send soldiers home for interment.   Dr. Thomas Holmes embalmed over 4,000 soldiers and officers so that they could be returned to their families for a proper burial. Once Holmes understood the potential of embalming, he resigned his commission and offered embalming to the public for $100.

In our modern world, embalming is used to disinfect the body.  It is also a sanitary way to preserve the body for the visitation and funeral service. Embalming can also lend a life-like appearance to the deceased and improve the appearance of someone who had a traumatic death.

The Funeral Service

Ceremonies and rites were originally held to placate the spirits.  But for hundreds of years, funeral services have been held to assist the living in expressing their grief, find support through friends and family, and celebrate the deceased’s life. 

Each step of the service is a part of the grieving process. Having the body present during a visitation assists the bereaved in recognizing the reality of death.  According to Dr. Erich Lindemann, American author and psychiatrist, specializing in bereavement, The moment of truth comes when living persons confront the fact of death by looking at the body. Grief is a feeling. If you deny it, you have difficulty coping with it, but if you face it, you start the process of healthful mourning!”

The visitation and funeral service also allows visitors an opportunity to remember the deceased and share those memories with others.  It is a way to honor and celebrate the deceased’s accomplishments and life.

The final step, the committal of the remains, helps the survivors acknowledge that they must now break with the past and move on into the future without their loved one.

The Grief Cycle
A description of the cycle of grief was first introduced in 1969 by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, after studying more than 500 dying people.  It consists of five stages that a person goes through when dealing with death or tragedy.

1) Denial - Usually only a temporary defense.
2) Anger – A person realizes that they cannot continue with the denial and moves into this phase where blaming and rage occur.
3) Bargaining – Trying to negotiate for more time.
4) Grieving/Depression – This is the stage where the certainity of death is understood.
5) Acceptance – The last stage where a person comes to terms with death or tragedy. 

These stages are not necessarily felt in this order but everyone goes through at least two of them. Women are more likely to experience all five.  Results from the study indicated that those who felt they had found their purpose in life faced death with less fear than those who had not.

Sir William Gladstone summed it up best, "
Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals."

~ Joy