It’s now 20 years since Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997. She’d famously said “I’d like to be a queen in people’s hearts” and the subsequent outpouring of grief might have indicated that her wish had been granted.
Notwithstanding, as Ian Hislop the editor of Private Eye observed, “We were witnessing the biggest U-turn in media history, with the press pretending that their behavior over the past 10 years simply hadn’t happened.”
Flowers were a central part of the public grieving at the time – over 10,000 tons of flowers carrying 50 million blooms were estimated to have been placed outside Kensington and Buckingham Palaces. Rosemary was placed for remembrance, wreathes in codified mourning, bouquets and single red roses as tokens of love. Singular messages accompanied many of the flowers. Golden chrysanthemums bore a note – “The colour of these flowers reflect the sunshine you brought into people’s lives”. A withered rose was accompanied by the explanation that this was the “last rose cut from our garden in memory of you Diana/ Love always/ Allison, John and Persephone”. Although the individual blooms and bouquets carried the intentions of the bearer, en masse interpretation of these offerings became more complex.
There was a sense of marginalisation for those whose response to her death was more measured. Ian Jack wrote ‘Those who felt differently’ for the winter issue of Granta – the London literary journal he edited. Here Jack, and others he interviewed, examined community and press expectations for grieving in the light of their own experiences of loss and grief. Elizabeth Stern observed, “One of my friends spent 50 pounds on flowers to send to the palace. And yet she didn’t buy flowers when my own parents died. I find it hard to speak to her.”
Diana’s death triggered recollections of Maggie Winkworth’s personal tragedy – she observed the public grieving as a kind of mass hysteria, to her, “the flowers were quite repulsive. I felt scared when I saw all those flowers. I seemed a kind of floral fascism … a country patrolled by the grief police.” Exemplars of the grief police in operation included nurses who shouted at a hospital doctor for not observing a minute’s silence.
The scale of mourning associated with Diana’s death was staggering – 10,000 tons of flowers were only one manifestation. Commentators observed the coercive nature of public reaction – Carmen Callil even compared the public spectacle with the Nuremberg rallies. Thirty-one million Britons watched the funeral on television – at that stage the largest audience British television had ever had (the next largest was 30 million for an episode of East Enders). The BBC suggested that worldwide 2.5 billion had watched. Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997 began with him singing ‘Goodbye England’s Rose’ at the funeral service and continued as a number one hit that remains the second biggest selling single of all time (after Bing Crosby’s White Christmas).
While the scale of public floral tributes for Diana is remarkable there are clear precedents – ancient and modern. Following the 1966 Aberfan disaster in Wales – when the local school was destroyed by an avalanche of coal waste – enough wreathes were sent from all over the world to make a cross a hundred feet tall. The distinction between public floral tributes and private ones is important although the boundaries obviously blur (as, for example, with Elton John’s song). The flowers on Diana’s coffin were clearly personal – small white roses from Harry, white tulips from William and, white lilies, her favourite flower, from her brother.
The association between flowers, death and grieving is apparent in much of the Western lexicon including Shakespeare and in the mythology and practices from ancient Rome and Greece. These are ancient connections but evidence goes further back. Plant remains in tombs are notoriously difficult for archaeologists to separate and identify, let alone determine whether deliberately placed or stray introductions. However, plant impressions, fossil pollen and phytoliths identified in tombs such as El Mirón cave in Cantabria, Spain dated around 16,000 years BP and Natufian burials at Raqefet Cave, Mt. Carmel, Israel dating from between 13,700–11,700 BP are considered the earliest evidence of floral tributes.
Flowers provide symbols and metaphors for life, for beauty, and for the transience of life. This symbolism isn’t simply a Western cultural artefact – the offerings of flowers at Buddhist temples are reminders of the nexus between beauty and transience as a metaphor for our own lives. While the language of flowers, or floriography, may be codified and constrained by local custom and practice, the power of the beauty of flowers in their own right, and as metaphors and symbols, remains undiminished.
The role of flowers as emotional stimuli with measurable impacts on social function has been studied although the broader relationship between people and plants remains largely overlooked and poorly understood. As Michael Pollan observes of this relationship, “There is a natural history of the human imagination, of beauty, religion, and possibly philosophy too.” The role of plants is fundamental in this natural history – perhaps the role of flowers is equally important.