I’ve written about flowers generally associated with death in a previous post – Carrion Gardening – but since we’re nearing Valentine’s Day this one is specifically about death and the world’s most romantic flower: The Rose.
Becoming a trainee APT in a mortuary was my first full-time job straight out of university. As I settled into the routine and began receiving a steady wage, I embraced my independence and decided it was time to move out of the family home. A lovely little apartment became available on a street within walking distance from where I’d been brought up and it was immediately opposite my gym: it was perfect. The road was Rose Lane, and the flat, instead of having a number, was called ‘Rose Cottage’. When I told my colleague at work one day she couldn’t believe it. She informed me knowingly that ‘Rose Cottage’ is a euphemism for mortuary used mainly in British hospitals and I hadn’t known that, having not worked in a hospital mortuary yet. Although it’s a phrase which isn’t encouraged in the modern NHS it was still used in this recent article about a military mortuary in Helmand and doing a quick Google search of ‘rose cottage mortuary’ will send you down a hole full of information on the phrase and its history. There’s even a Rose Cottage mini PC game about a haunted mortuary and a soon as I started watching the walkthrough I was transfixed.
I’ve since thought about this association of death with roses a little more, and I initially found it unusual that they are used within that euphemism, given how they mainly represent love and sex. Roses are often symbolic of female genitalia and the ancient Greeks and Romans associated them with their goddesses of love, Venus and Aphrodite respectively. But the rose is also said to have bloomed from the blood of the crucified Christ, when heavy, crimson drops fell onto the parched ground, symbolising death and sacrifice. Their beautiful petals, the colour of blood or flesh, can hide dangerous thorns which have evolved to draw blood. The rose also speaks of secrets: in ancient Rome one bloom would be placed at the site of a confidential meeting or activity. To that effect, Sub Rosa or “beneath the rose” means something clandestine; keep it quiet. Perhaps this is what the roses of Rose Cottage speak of? After all, mortuaries are normally hidden from view in hospitals or elsewhere and not clearly signposted at all so that they can be quite difficult to find.
Red roses are THE most romantic flower of them all and Valentines Day just wouldn’t be the same without them: for me it is not a holiday for sunflowers or carnations – only roses will do. Flower experts say that red roses are an unmistakable expression of love and convey deep emotions such as longing and desire and its certainly an association that still lingers despite the fact we’ve moved away from using the formal and traditional language of flowers.
But ever since I was a child I loved lilies as much as I love roses. My grandmother was called Lily so I associate them with her and I have always adored their heady, all encompassing smell. However it wasn’t until I worked in the funeral industry that I learned of the lily’s association with death also. Despite that (or perhaps because of it) my website header contains both white lilies and red roses and I still maintain that my bridal bouquet will one day be composed of them, despite once being informed by an embalmer that this combination symbolises blood and bandages. By WWI, red and white bouquets were not permitted in hospitals by matrons as they were a bad luck omen and portent of imminent death. (There are lots of interesting opinions about this here). Superstitious nurses still don’t like red and white bouquets on their wards for this reason.
But the rose’s connection with death exists on a deeper level. Roses contain Indole, an aromatic organic compound which I’ve discussed before. It can be found in the muskier areas of human anatomy, chocolate, coffee and decomposing corpses. there’s a wonderful piece about this from the new blog Death, Scent and the Live Girl and I also chatted about it in my YouTube video Eau De Cay (below).
And finally, a withered rose can symbolise death. Companies like Bluelips and The Payback in the US will deliver dead roses to your enemy but it’s probably cheaper to pick up a dying bunch on sale and wait for them to completely wither before gifting them. In fact why waste good, dead roses on anyone?
With all that in mind, you’re probably getting in the mood for your Bloody Valentines day so why not take some inspiration from the below and have a good one?
Film – Rose of Death
Song – Dead Roses Feat. Black bear