Graveyards and cemeteries are spaces for burial and mourning, but they can also be spaces for life, community, and healing. This is where grave gardening comes into play, which is the art of creating a garden at the location of your loved ones grave.
There have been many studies that show gardening has many mental health benefits, including helping us relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Psychologists have shown that the physical aspect of gardening releases feel-good chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine. Even physically working with soil makes us happier. A 2007 study found a bacterium in soil called Mycobacterium vaccae triggers the release of serotonin, which lifts mood and reduces anxiety.
The act of leaving flowers or gardening at a gravesite is a common ritual that can be found in many cultures dating back thousands of years.
Gardening can also teach us about death, grief, and living well. We spoke about the power of gardening and grief with Jess Reina Rainville, who has created a garden at her father’s grave. She shared with us what gardening has taught her about dealing with her own grief. “I’ve learned that it’s just so sad, like way beyond sad,” she explained. “I’ve known death before, but my Dad is the closest human to [me to] die… Bringing in life like flowers and plants that attract birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators, to me is the best way to soften death.”
Grave gardening also helps you to meditate on the cycle of life and death, and can even give you an opportunity to create a continuing bond with your loved one. “My Dad always had gardens in every house he lived in,” Rainville recalls. “It’s funny because I never thought of him as a gardener but looking back it’s amazing how much he did actually garden.” Considering the way gardening has helped Rainville, and others like her, it is not surprising then that the act of leaving flowers or gardening at a gravesite is a common ritual that can be found in many cultures dating back thousands of years.
In Victorian times, garden style, or rural style, cemeteries became popular as both a way to deal with overcrowded cemeteries, and as a way to create natural spaces within urban centers to attract visitors. Before public parks existed in urban areas, these early cemeteries acted as both burial grounds and relaxing destinations where people would take picnics around the gravestones, and were designed with landscapes full of trees, shrubbery, and flowers growing amongst the tombstones.
Cradle graves were a fixture of these cemeteries, which doubled as gravestones and flower planters for the deceased. Their appearance usually consisted of a headstone, footstone, and two low walls connecting them. In the middle, there is an exposed patch of earth where family members could plant and maintain small flower gardens. They were especially popular in between the Civil War and Victorian times in the South and Midwest of the United States, only to fall out of fashion when urban parks were introduced to cityscapes.
Surprisingly, it was rural cemeteries that inspired the creation of the parks. Architects, such as Andrew Jackon Downing, were in part inspired by the rolling hills and curving paths of these spaces and used this inspiration to create spaces such as Central Park in New York City. At the same time, attitudes towards death started to shift away from the Victorian sensibilities of ornate and public mourning. Over time cemeteries became more bare and simplistic in their landscape and design.
As cemeteries continued to evolve throughout the later half of the 20th-century, they began enacting rules on plants and grave gardening. This was generally to streamline maintenance, avoid hazards, and to prevent situations deemed unsightly or detrimental to the overall aesthetic of the cemetery. This has caused issues at some military cemeteries, where family mementos and graveside flowers are considered inappropriate. Despite this, there are still cemeteries that allow people to practice grave gardening today.
Tips to get started planting a grave garden
If you want to start your own garden at a loved one’s grave, please first check the cemetery’s policies or by-laws. These policies will vary wildly, so it is important to know before you start what you can and cannot plant at a gravesite. When choosing what to plant, remember to choose plants that are not invasive, and can survive in the conditions found at the gravesite.
- A special thanks to Jess Raina Rainville for sharing these touching images of the garden she has created at father’s grave.
Rainville is an ecological horticulturist, and recommends choosing drought tolerant plants that can survive less frequent waterings. Due to the nature and location of these types of gardens, you will not be able to tend to them on the same frequency as you would a garden in your backyard. Rainville prefers indigenous plants, but there are other options depending on where you live and the growing conditions around the cemetery.
Planting indigenous species is also low maintenance, as many are drought tolerant and will blend in with the natural surroundings of the cemetery. Annuals bring a promise of regrowth every season, but they require more maintenance and may not be able to handle the growing conditions of the cemetery. Perennials are a popular choice because they die with every frost, and they come back in the Spring. You will still have to remove the dead parts of the plant for maintenance each year.
Another useful tip is to add an inch or two of mulch after planting can help deter weeds from growing, and further cut down on maintenance. It is important to note that if you are limited to potted plants, these have a short life span as they are prone to drying up faster than plants in the ground.
If you are planting in the ground, you also have to take into consideration that the soil is most likely to be of a poor quality, which means you will have to work compost into it before you can start planting. If you are just starting out, Rainville recommends you start small—especially if you can’t visit the grave often. “I’ve seen lots of different coloured Daylilies that do really well, Pearly Everlasting, Butterfly Milkweeds and Harebells, Sedums, Goldenrods, Asters and Rudbeckias, and Sempervivum (house leek). There are wonderful native Woodland Phloxes, Bloodroot, and Sedges as well for shade spots.”
The main thing to remember is that hardy, drought tolerant plants are the best types to choose for your grave garden.
There are plenty of options out there, but remember to do your research first before planting. You also need to be prepared for the possibility that local critters will take a nibble from, or even steal, some of your plants. There is also the potential for damage caused by the cemetery workers themselves from mowers or weed wackers. The main thing to remember is that hardy, drought tolerant plants are the best types to choose for your grave garden.
Why grave gardening?
For some, gardening graveside is a way to remember and celebrate their dead loved ones. For others, it could be a time and place for healing their own grief. It is less about the particular flowers or plants your loved one preferred, and is more about the process and intentionality. Your reason for creating a grave garden is unique as you are! Rainville encourages you to embrace your creativity. “Incorporate special stones or solar lighting, make it magical! Don’t be afraid of what people think, or that it’s too weird, it’s there to comfort YOU.” The important thing to remember is that this ritual can be beneficial for your mental and physical health.
Whatever you decide, one of our favourite tips by Rainville is to plant something that flowers, and can carry meaning literally beyond the cemetery gates. For Rainville, being able to cut flowers and bring them home is extra special. “… it’s really the closest I feel to him, when I bring the flowers home, sometimes I like to take some soil from the grave too and sprinkle around my favourite plants at home.”
Being among the tombstones and surrounded by nature can be healing. Grave Gardening can be a meaningful way to connect with the dead and be part of the natural world. We all know the idiom ‘Pushing up Daisies,’ so why not plant them?