Rosemary for Remembrance

April 23rd is the day we commemorate both the birth and the death of the greatest English playwright, William Shakespeare.

If you visit his place of birth, Stratford-upon-Avon, you’ll find sprigs of rosemary dotted around many of the historic places he’s associated with – an acknowledgment of the fact he invoked rosemary at a pivotal point in one of his most famous plays, Hamlet.

I’ve written about the historic connection between rosemary, remembrance and love before and how the herb can bring powerful symbolism to both a funeral and a wedding.

But, as we learn more about how smell can be a remarkable trigger of memory, and on the day when we’re remembering and honouring Shakespeare, it bears revisiting.

The reason that smell plays such an important role in memory is because scent is the only sense that feeds directly into the part of our brain that processes emotion. To smell rosemary at a life event is to fix in our minds forever the feelings of that day.

In the 21st century, we know that through extensive research and experimentation; for Shakespeare, it must have been a cross between old wives’ tales and gut instinct.

In Hamlet, Ophelia tells us ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance’. Shakespeare had studied the classics. That means he probably knew, like us, that ancient Greek scholars wore garlands of rosemary during academic exams, hoping perhaps that a quick turn around the herb garden would replace hours studying.

But rosemary isn’t just associated with aspiring students, it has a deep-seated connection with the passing of loved ones that goes back millennia. Since pre-historic times, our ancestors have used rosemary in burial rites. We know that, as far back as 1000BC, the ancient Egyptians were using rosemary, along with other essential oils, to embalm the bodies of their dead.  

There’s evidence that Romans carried rosemary with them during funeral processions and then left the sprigs with the body. In the early sixteenth century, English statesman and politician, Sir Thomas More, wrote of rosemary: “Whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds.” Partly, we think, it’s because, as an evergreen plant, rosemary is associated with eternal life.

Rosemary is also associated with eternal love – and everyone wants to be assured of that at their wedding.

Again from the sixteenth century, the celebrated Doctor of Divinity, Roger Hacket, said in his ‘fruitful sermon on marriage’: “Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart.”

With the growing popularity of ‘natural’ weddings, the dark green leaf and pretty blue flower of rosemary is the perfect choice for an unusual and sweet smelling bouquet or as an attractive cake decoration. Charlie, from The Natural Wedding Company, has some wonderful ideas in one of her blogs about how to use the herb.

Whether because of its evocative smell or its symbolism, rosemary has played a long and honourable part in celebrating life and love.

To include it in your life event is to follow the customs of our ancestors stretching back thousands of years.

As the year dies, the gift of life

A new month but a strange one in a way, definitely out of autumn but not really into the depths of winter.

It’s a liminal time, neither one thing nor the other.

In the northern hemisphere, we notice signs of death around us. Leaves change colour and fall, plants wither in the first frosts, the last orchard fruits disappear.

Perhaps not surprising then that November 1st is traditionally considered a day when the barriers between the living and the dead are thin and shifting and when doorways between the physical and non-physical worlds can open. Many cultures around the world believe that the souls of those we love can return at this time.

Perhaps the most famous is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, a colourful and joyous festival which families use as an opportunity to come together to remember and celebrate the dead.

During the festival, children are given sweets shaped like human skulls – perhaps in the hope that it’s difficult to be afraid of death when its representation is associated with the blissful taste of melting sugar! They also see adults putting out special toys for departed souls to play with and little clay figures showing the dead in physical activities. It’s deliberately not scary.

In some ways, our Hallowe’en is becoming similar – the sweets and frivolity of Trick and Treat replacing what was once a solemn Christian festival. Hallowe’en was the evening before All Hallows’ Day on November 1st, the day of remembrance for all the saints. After the Reformation in the 16th century, this gradually changed to commemorating all those who had died, not just saints, but the day was still recognised by church-going and prayers rather than exuberant celebration.

Undas in the Philippines is another remembrance festival that brings the family together, often to visit the graves of loved ones with, again, food and flowers. At home, they light a candle for each loved one to be remembered. Children are encouraged to roll melted wax from the candles into a ball, a symbol that everything goes back to where it began.

The Samhain festival is a Celtic one from the pre-Roman era. Although no written details exist from the time, Old Irish literature from the 10th century says it was, among other things, a time to honour the dead. A place was set at the table for the souls of dead relatives who might return for the day and, you’ve guessed it, food and drink laid out to welcome or appease them. Again, traditionally, it’s observed on November 1st.

All of these festivals, and there are many others around the world, remind us that we can find happy ways to remember those we’ve lost. It doesn’t have to be a big celebration or one that involves other people. In a secular world, we may no longer believe that the souls of the departed visit once a year but we can still enjoy their favourite meal, listen to a much-loved piece of music, visit a meaningful place. These acts of remembrance are bitter-sweet – a reminder of what we’ve lost but also an assurance that those memories can never be taken away.

When we remember, we give our loved ones a different life, whatever the time of year

A ribbon to tie up your memories

Some of the bereaved families I speak with are quite confused when I ask if they would like the funeral ceremony to be a celebration of life.

I think they imagine I’m suggesting we have dancing in the aisles (I have done that!) and balloons (done that too!).

But even a more traditional funeral can include touches that truly celebrate the life of the person who has gone.

Take this ribbon, for example, already chosen by the family before I met them. The colour was the favourite of the person we were honouring and it’s perhaps no coincidence that it matched his sunny nature as well. His name was printed on each one.

But it’s the words that are particularly meaningful.

‘Laugh a lot, sing often, keep smiling’.

The family could have chosen any words. But the tributes given during the ceremony spoke about how he brought laughter to those around him and how he loved to sing along to his favourite pop tunes.

The words also recognise his concern, in his last days, that those he loved should continue to have happy lives, even without him.

Simple words but chosen with meaning and love.

A ribbon was given to each mourner, with a pin, before the ceremony began so that they had time to reflect and to pin it over their heart before walking into the chapel.

Wearing this symbol of remembrance united everyone in their loss at a time when coming together and supporting each other is of the greatest importance.

It also served as a reminder that a life lived well is something to celebrate, even as we mourn the fact that it is over.

I was privileged to wear one of the ribbons myself and it is now fastened to a board in my office. It’s a constant visual reminder of a lovely man who is missed more than words can say but who will never be forgotten by the people who shared his life.

If you would like to arrange a similar way to celebrate a life, contact me or search for ‘Awareness Ribbons’ online. Companies offer a range of colours and you can choose the words that have a unique meaning for you and your loved one.

Susan Flipping


Twitter: @KentCeremonies