In lieu of

Flower image courtesy of Shutterstock
Flower image courtesy of Shutterstock

Sad fact—as the years go by, there are more wakes and funerals to attend. Increasingly, we have been recognizing the passings of friends and relatives, or supporting our friends and relatives in their losses. Acknowledging death is just another part of living, but it’s not one of my favorite things; in fact, after each one, my husband and I reaffirm our intentions to have a big party and nothing else.

Very often, there is one element consistently missing at such gatherings—flowers.  In almost every case, you’ll see a line something like this in the obit—“in lieu of flowers, donations to such-and-such-a-foundation will be gratefully accepted.” This makes sense in so many ways. Charitable organizations win and flowers aren’t wasted. Also, one of the big issues with funeral flowers is that they are often so tacky; instead of nice, simple bouquets, you have big wreaths and other awkward configurations—maybe even the clichéd horseshoes of gangster flicks.

Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised a few months ago, when I read the words “she prefers flowers….she wants lots of flowers for her ceremonies,” in an email regarding a friend’s sister. I called the best florist in town and figured out an elegant bouquet that both my friend would enjoy and her sister might have liked. I also brought a bunch of bulbs with me, for my friend to plant in her sister’s memory. At the wake, we walked around and looked at all the arrangements and read the cards; it was something positive to do.

Another way to handle it is to have plants that can later be put in the ground. I did this on another occasion, using full, colorful mixed pots and hanging baskets that I later enjoyed for the rest of the summer. Guests took some of the smaller pots home.

In spite of the abuses, I still think flowers have a place.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I agree that flowers are lovely, and here is another idea: The synagogue I attend displays fruits and veggies at services. The bounty is always beautiful, and after the service, it gets donated to food kitchens.
    Caveat: I’m not sure if this goes for funerals, as well. Perhaps not. But weddings, yes.

  2. I have left instructions for my funeral for my brother. I want flowers. Lots of flowers, but no red flowers. In fact I would love it if the Horticultural Society hosted a floral competition at my funeral. Then there would be flowers and creativity.

  3. Being a child who was raised in the funeral industry…three generations…I have attended way too many services. I can’t imagine a funeral service without flowers. That would be like a wedding without flowers. It is just wrong, barren, and lifeless?? 😉 I have also assisted in distributing those funeral flowers, after the fact, to the local churches, hospitals, and nursing homes…all so appreciative of some lovely flowers!

    For me? Just put me in the compost pile and have a wonderful garden party! I love Lisa’s suggestion of a floral competition! ~Julie

  4. Before my husband died, I asked him if he wanted his obituary to read, “In lieu of flowers…” He said “no.” He was a big-time gardener and he loved flowers. There were lots of beautiful flowers there and I still have the mums from the service.

  5. I too want lots of flowers at my funeral – I also thought it would be nice to have packets of seeds that I collected from my wildflowers to give out to anyone who wanted to plant seeds from my plants – to keep them going!

  6. Your post made me remember my sister’s friend who suffered from a long hard battle with cancer. She was a therapist with many loyal clients and former clients as well as many friends and a large family. She had, sadly, a lot of time to think about her own funeral. She asked that people only bring single stems of flowers, and even dandelions were okay. Then everyone said prayers at the end of the service and walked up to the alter and placed their flowers there at the end when they were ready. Even thinking of it — and I did not know this woman — made me tear up and think it was probably one of the most touching and lovely ceremonies ever. In my mind I imagine doing that with a big blanket and then taking all of the flowers and composting them. To me, as a survivor of someone, that would be really meditative and a way to celebrate rebirth, life, etc. That compost would be very special to me, full of prayers and wishes. But I have feeling only fellow gardeners would understand that.

    Funerals are more about those who are left behind than those who die. I have been to enough sad ceremonies to realize that no matter what, it should really be about what the family and survivors will need than about the one who has already departed. The survivors will need to heal. Anything that brings healing — even those horseshoe arrangements sometimes, if they come with a really nice written message — can do that. But it is so individual….

    • I agree, funerals are about those left behind. But at some point in my life (or death) I want control of a special day. Mother’s Day is about my mother (who is a wonderful person, I love her very much), my birthday is about my children celebrating it in their way, Christmas is about my children also (of course). My wedding was the way that my mother-in-law thought it should be. I know that although my wishes are for a bench along the water front, cremation, and a party, it will be really what my children need.

  7. A funeral can indeed end up a tasteless cacophony of badly dated styles and garish colors. Part of the reason for that is resistance from the elders in the family to be open to anything that might depart from the look they remember from childhood at their own elders’ funerals. So yes, it has a lot to do with comforting the survivors. But that argument explains only the family flowers while it’s often the rest of the pieces that arrive from well meaning relatives that introduce the discordant look, often ordered online from a grab bag of unknown florists including predatory order gatherers. My advice to anyone sending flowers to a funeral is to first find out which florist is handling the family flowers and order from them. A good florist will coordinate all of the pieces they design. Another bit of advice is to not make it a competition. It’s pretty tacky to try to outdo each other on this particular occasion. Small, simple and elegant also gets noticed, if you really need to get noticed. On the other hand, this might be your last chance to score, as was clearly the case with one woman who ordered a wreath from one of my florist customers. “It has to be magnificent”, she said. “I have to win.” It was, of course, for her former mother-in-law.

  8. Here is another wonderful idea, when my gardening friend died she left instructions that everyone bring a small hand held bouquet and place it near the casket for the service. Then at the end she wanted everyone to take home a different bouquet to remember her by. We have flowers for all the great occasions to celebrate life. Flowers at the end of life are equally loving.

  9. Flowers, oh YES! When I think of my best friend, who died of an undiagnosed cerebral aneurysm a month ago, I am happy that this was the Summer of Lisianthus, in which I grew an abundance of lisianthus which she loved and picked every time she visited. She had a wondrous garden at home. For a gardener flowers are joyous. You absolutely have to have them when saying good-bye.

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