Grave Flowers

This typological study of flowers left in a cemetery strikes the viewer in two different ways, those where natural flowers have wilted or withered (quite common during the Coronavirus lockdown) – and those where artificial flowers had been left. The artificial flowers are very bright, sometimes garish, often in contrast to the faded headstones.

It is interesting to formally evaluate these images in iconographical terms. "Iconography became the name in art history for one of the discipline's central, and defining, activities: identifying the formal and symbolic elements in visual representation and then elaborating upon their wider social and cultural importance" (Harris 2006:148). The methodology was first proposed by Erwin Panofsky in the 1950s where "The subject matter or meaning was ... to be established by referring to the understandings of the symbols and signs in a painting that its contemporary audiences would have had" (Rose 2016:198). Panofsky constructed a frame which consisted of three separate levels of visual interpretation (ibid):

• Primary natural pre-iconographic
• Secondary conventional iconographic
• Intrinsic symbolic iconological

In terms of analysing an image Gbrich (2015) describes them as:

• Primary: a factual description of the image
• Secondary: analysis of the meanings of the signs or symbols within the image
• Intrinsic : how the signs or symbols relate to the period in which the image was made

Primary level
At this level the photographs are of graves within a cemetery with the text on the headstones and there are flowers, some dying, some artificial, by the grave. Some of the graves have other ornamentation such as toys, lanterns, small figurines.

Secondary Level
There are a number of symbols within the images. Flowers, particularly when drooping or losing petals, are a typical motif of the transience of life, frequently used in Vanitas still life paintings, particularly in Dutch and Spanish art of the 17th century (Chilvers 2009). Flowers are a symbol of the transience of life when they bloom and die back "Doomed to die almost as soon as they bloom, they wither sadly on the stem in rank disorder, eventually falling to the ground from which they came" (Taussig 2003:118).

There are religious symbols within images GF05 and GF08. The cherubs represent angels that "surrounded God in perpetual adoration" (Hall 2008:17) and perhaps also refer to the age of the deceased. The candles are symbolic of the light of faith and are "an attribute of faith personified" (Hall 2008:59).The lanterns in the two images are symbols of Christ the Redeemer most notably displayed in William Holman Hunt's painting The Light of the World

The leaving of toys at the graves of children, seen in images GF01, GF04 and GF05, perhaps dates back to Victorian times, in the late 19th century "it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite" (Cherrell 2019). While the leaving of doll likenesses of a child no longer occurs, leaving toys is still a regular occurrence and are symbolic of the young age at which the deceased passed away.

Intrinsic Level
The question arises as to the symbolism of artificial flowers, which don't wither on the stem. Their colours may fade over time, but only after a considerable period. Artificial flowers are not a new phenomenon, "Immortelles were mass-produced fake flowers used in the Victorian and Edwardian period for placing on graves in lieu of real flowers" (Marriott 2018).

But can today's mass-produced, brightly coloured, plastic flowers have the same symbolic meaning as natural flowers? Some religious leaders have enforced rules against them, Barkham (2011) quotes the The Rev Geoff Stickland "The metaphor of flowers is the beauty that weathers and decays. That is why we always put real flowers in the churchyard where they are associated with funerals. Plastic ones don't decay, so the metaphor gets lost".

This is just one church leader, however, and not all would agree with his approach, many cemeteries outside church settings do not have similar rules. Artificial flowers have been left for the same purpose as natural flowers, but do they contain the same symbolic meaning. Have artificial flowers lost the symbolic nature of transience (as seen in images GF02 and GF03 the bright colours of the artificial flowers are in marked contrast to the faded headstones) or does our present-day culture accept that the representation of a flower (in plastic) still carries the connotation of the transience of life. Is the artificial flower a symbol for a real flower which is symbolic of transience or does it mean that in our present culture the act of leaving a symbol is as important as the symbol itself.


Barkham, P. (2011) ‘Should fake flowers be banned from cemeteries?’ In: The Guardian 12/01/2011 At: (Accessed 24/07/2020).

 Cherrell, K. (2019) The World of Victorian Grave Dolls. At: (Accessed 24/07/2020).

 Chilvers, I. (2009) The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4th Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Gbrich, C. (2015) Iconology and Iconography: Describing, Classifying and Interpreting Religious and Artistic Objects. Directed by Gbrich, C. At:

 Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. Abingdon: Routledge.

 Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder: Westview Press.

 Marriott, J. (2018) Immortelles and inspirations: a logo for Life, Death (and the Rest). At: (Accessed 24/07/2020).

Rose, G. (2016) Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials (4th Edition). London: Sage.

Taussig, M. (2003) ‘The Language of Flowers’ In: Critical Inquiry 30 (1) pp.98–131. 

Using Format