Although this past winter has felt like it was one of the longest seasons in history, spring 2021 is finally here.
We’re still a few months out from crop-top weather, but we’re indulging our springtime daydreams by examining the history of several trees species found in cemeteries throughout the world.
You may notice that each tree referenced here is an evergreen, meaning that the tree doesn’t shed leaves come autumn, and maintains its color throughout the year. These cemetery trees also share similar yet unique folklore and ties to human spirituality and superstition.
Why are certain trees (specifically the yew, cypress, and Eastern red cedar) common to cemeteries and older graveyards?
Folklore, Superstition, and the History of Cemetery and Graveyard Trees
The yew tree may be the most well-known and recognizable cemetery tree in Europe.
Yew trees are known for their ability to thrive in almost any soil condition and can withstand harsh weather. These attributes are why many yew trees have lived for thousands of years. (Fun fact: Several yew experts have aged a tree known as the “Defynnog yew” as more than 5,000 years old!)
Yew Tree Folklore & Religious Connotations
Yew trees have a rich history that’s rooted in Pagan and Christian storytelling.
According to pagan lore, yew trees are sacred to Hecate, the Greek goddess of death, witchcraft, and necromancy. In myth, it’s said that the yew purifies the dead as they arrive in Hades, also known as the underworld. Britain’s Best Guides writer and Blue Badge Heart of England tour guide, Sean Callery, adds that Celtic druids also used yew trees in their death rituals.
Yew trees are the stars of many UK churchyard burial grounds. For example, two yew trees have grown into a wall featuring a side doorway at St Edward’s Church in Stow-on-the-Wall!
Seeing as Christian churchyards house many yews, it’s not surprising that there is a symbolic connection to that faith. For example, a yew tree’s heartwood (the wood at the center of the tree) is a reddish, orange-brown, and its sapwood (the outer, “living” layer of the tree) is a pale yellowish-white hue. “These colours symbolise the blood and body of Christ,” Callery writes. “As a hardy evergreen tree able to survive on infertile soil, the yew also suggested [to Christians] rebirth and resurrection.”
Yew Tree Graveyard Protection & Funeral Lore
Yew needles and bark are poisonous to most animals and people. And although the flesh of the tree’s bright red berry is not toxic, the berry seed is poisonous.
These parts of the tree contain taxine, an alkaloid poison. “According to one study, a dose of 100 grams of chopped leaves could kill an adult,” Callery writes. Possible poisoning served as a solid reason for people to keep their cattle out of graveyards, which helped preserve graveyard grounds.
In addition to playing a prominent role in human spirituality, the yew tree has a history that’s steeped in superstition.
According to Royal Parks, some people would carry yew branches at a loved one’s funeral. Mourners would then tuck the yew sprig in the deceased’s coffin. Some people thought the yew sprig would bring eternal life.
Robert Turner, the 17th-century translator of “mystical and medico-chemical texts,” said that some people, at the time, believed that yew branches could “‘draw and imbibe’ the ‘gross and oleaginous Vapours exhaled out of the graves by the setting Sun.’”
Yew branches also supposedly helped deter ghosts and apparitions. Turner discovered that superstitious monks “believed that the yew could drive away devils,” too.
While the yew tree is the prominent tree in many UK cemeteries and churchyards, the cypress tree, also known as the “mournful tree,” was and continues to be the cemetery tree in ancient and modern Muslim and European societies.
Cypress Tree Folklore & Religious Connotations
According to scholar Saba Alebrahim Dehkordi, cypress trees are known for their ability to grow in any type of climate and are considered very resilient. Dehkordi writes that in Iranian culture, cypress trees (as well as olive trees) “come from heaven”, while Greeks and Romans thought the tree was “related to the Gods of Hell.”1
Zoroastrians considered the cypress tree to be a symbol of immortality and deathlessness, while later Celtics considered the cypress to be a “symbol of death.” Dehkordi adds that Celtic mourners would place their dead in the tree for burial, which would allow the deceased’s body to return to the plants to live again.2
Israeli researchers Amots Dafni et al. also note that the cypress was considered sacred by the rulers of the underworld, as well as the “Fates and Furies.”
Cypress Tree Graveyard Protection & Funeral Lore
The cypress became a lauded cemetery tree thanks to its appearance, which inspired folklore.
In their research, Dafni et al., found that cypress trees were described as “dark and gloomy” and looked like they were able “to express sorrow.”3 The researchers also discovered that cypress would often be planted near graves or in the front yard of a home “as a warning against outsiders entering a place corrupted by a dead body.”
The researchers also note that the tree’s needles’ ability to withstand strong winds inspired people to compare it to “the just man who preserved his virtue.”
Eastern Red Cedar Trees
To close, we’re taking a look at an evergreen cemetery tree that grows in the Eastern and Southern United States and Canada.
Similar to the other trees mentioned here, the Eastern red cedar is hardy. The tree develops deep roots, tolerates wind, heat, and salt. It also can withstand occasional flooding and has drought tolerance.
Similar to the yew, red cedars can grow to be quite old. A red cedar that’s thought to be at least 200 years old resides in the Methodist Lone Hill Cemetery in Coffee County, Georgia.
Eastern Red Cedar Folklore & Religious Connotations
The Eastern red cedar is common in many old cemeteries in Georgia and Florida. Like its evergreen counterparts, the Eastern red cedar is known as the “graveyard tree” in this region because it can successfully grow for many years. The tree’s perpetually green needles also are said to symbolize “eternal life”.
The red cedar was and continues to be respected by Indigenous peoples who live in the region. “For the Cherokee, the wood of cedar trees holds the spirits of their ancestors and is, thus, a sacred tree,” Sam Bland of the Coastal Review Online writes.
Cedar in various forms (including Western red cedar and yellow cedar) are used for ceremonial purposes in Canada, where it is believed by some that burning it during ceremonies carries prayers to the Creator. Cedar is also often used to drive out negative energy and purify homes.
Eastern Red Cedar Graveyard Protection & Funeral Lore
Many superstitions concerning the red cedar are somewhat sinister. There is an old Ozark superstition that if a red cedar you plant “grows tall enough to shade your grave, you will die.”
Ozarkers also used to believe that transplanting a red cedar would bring bad luck. Folklore collector Vance Randolph has “described several examples of people refusing to move cedar trees because they thought it would bring an early death to them or someone in their family.”
People did not bring cedar boughs into their homes because doing so would bring “very bad luck.” The only time it was safe to bring branches from the tree inside was to celebrate Christmas. However, revellers had to remove the tree’s remnants from the house before midnight on Epiphany (January 6).
Although graveyards are biodiverse sanctuaries filled with various types of flora, certain trees hold particular significance.
There are practical and spiritual reasons behind the placement of yew, cypress, and Eastern red cedars within cemeteries, and folklore about them have been shared for centuries.
Next time you take a walk through your local cemetery, see if you can spot any of the trees we discussed today!
I found this article really fascinating. I am a poet and would love to write about graveyard trees. Have you written more or could you recommend any books on the subject?
Against religion or folklore to break off small branches of dogwoods? i.e, bad luck? Early death?
I am a tree and flower lover. Small cuttings rooted back at home
I am currently working on some blog posts featuring the trees we have growing in our cemeteries and this is very helpful!
Do you know of any other resources for the history and symbolism of graveyard trees?
Hello. Here there are mulberry, pine, yew, cypress and cedar trees as cemetery trees:
I just recently retrieved the flower arrangement on my Dad’s tombstone for the winter. It was an arrangement I made with plastic flowers inserted into an oasis foam. In the middle was a small branch with a few autumn leaves on it (a birch tree branch). At first I thought the wind had blown it there but when a tried to take it out it was stuck in there. Then I thought maybe someone had stuck the branch in there. But when I got home and tried to remove it I realized that it had grown in there, the roots had grown all through the foam. I was just wondering if there might be some kind of meaning for this. I know I’m just being sentimental, but I was just wondering.
One problem: the photo under your heading “Eastern Red Cedar” shows trees that are not, in fact, Eastern Red Cedar. They’re Norway Spruce.
So you should update that photo.
Very embarrassing! Thank you for letting us know and we will make that change shortly.