France’s Flower of the Dead

teysseroles-combel-family-grave.jpg
A pot of chrysanthemums decorating a family grave

For a fortnight or so before 1st November (Toussaint; All Saints’ Day) pavements outside French florists’ shops and undertakers, and whole marquees at supermarkets, are heaving with chrysanthemums in pots. But don’t be tempted to offer a pot as a gift; you’ll likely sour a budding friendship. Why? The chrysanthemum is the flower of the dead in France. 

It took me a long time to work this out. Thankfully, I didn’t commit a faux pas during that time. The penny began to drop when I saw tombs in local cemeteries adorned with pots of these flowers. It’s estimated that over 25 million pots of chrysanths are sold every year.

Toussaint is a public holiday. Along with the following day, it’s when families gather to visit the graves of their departed forebears to tidy them and decorate them with pots of flowers. The festival itself is thought to have been initiated in the 5th century in Rome, to move bones into the catacombs, but it was only early in the 20th century that the Pope included Toussaint in the calendar of holy days.

Why chrysanthemums? After World War I, this tradition replaced an earlier custom to place lighted candles on the tombstones (not very practical during the kind of weather one normally gets at Toussaint). The first celebration of the Armistice took place on 11th November 1919. President Poincaré decreed that all graves in France should be decorated with flowers to honour the war dead. Since few flowers are in bloom during November, the still-flowering chrysanthemum became the flower of choice. The tradition spread from Armistice Day to Toussaint as well.

Teysseroles - marking out the allée
Chapelle de Teysseroles, Toussaint tidying in full swing

You may remember that the SF (husband) and I belong to an association that aims to restore the chapel of Teysseroles, in the former parish of which our house is situated. Every year in late October, we gather to tidy the churchyard and prepare it for Toussaint. It’s usually necessary to do it again a couple of months later – to remove the skeletal remains of the chrysanthemums and pick up the plastic pots that the wind has scattered around the cemetery. However, at least the dead get their due once a year.

Teysseroles Tidy graveyard
Graves adorned with flowers

So think twice before you offer a pot, or even a bouquet, of chrysanthemums to French people.

You might also like:

Saint Catherine’s Day Customs
French Solstice Customs
Le Drapeau Tricolore: How France Got its Flag

Copyright © 2018 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

11 comments

  1. Those giant pots of tiny chrysanthemums became popular autumn potted plants in England before I moved here four years ago. I happily bought the deep yellow and rich deep red for my house as they were the perfect autumn colouring. Wonderful plants as they lasted ages!
    I too didn’t know the French significance of them so bought them again here until our young French plumbers looked at me quizzically on seeing them in the house. They kindly enlightened me. I’m still tempted to buy them but I notice I don’t!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s rather a pity, really, isn’t it? I think they make rather nice houseplants, but it’s simply not the done thing. However, during lockdown nobody will be coming into the house, so perhaps one can get away with it!

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  2. Ha ha. Like others I too fell into error taking my neighbours a bunch after they made me so welcome. The doyenne of the house, a spritely 80year old looked at me, then at the flowers and said sourly, ‘I’m not dead yet you know and even if I were I wouldn’t want those on my grave.’ She hated the pungent scent that they have, especially the big ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are certainly not alone in making this mistake. In a way, it’s rather a pity that these flowers now have such an association, since there aren’t many others flowering at this time of year. But this is clearly a tradition that has become deeply ingrained in French culture.

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  3. It’s funny, because my French husband just commented on chrysanthemums that he saw while passing a florist’s shop, saying they were awful because of the association that he has with them. In Greece, it’s marigolds that are considered cemetery flowers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know that about marigolds in Greece. It seems that every country has its flowers of the dead. I imagine your husband’s reaction must be common among French people!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I did once take a bunch (or maybe even a pot – I can’t remember) as a gift once when I hadn’t been long in France and was invited to dinner. I learned my lesson quickly form my hostess’s reaction.
    Same – but not quite as extreme – as when I took lilies to an Australian hostess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s an easy mistake to make if you don’t know about it. My grandmother in the UK would never have lilac in the house, especially the white variety, which is associated with death. Every culture has its customs.

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    • In the UK, where I come from, they are just used as cut flowers in the autumn, when very little else flowers. It was a revelation to me that they are the flower of the dead here in France.

      Liked by 1 person

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