Rosemary for remembrance

Does the smell of rosemary evoke the same memories for you as it does for me?

Family roast dinners, a butterflied leg of lamb thrown onto a summer barbecue, languid holidays around the Mediterranean?

Evidence is growing that smells can be remarkable triggers of memory, much stronger than sight or sound, and the strong and distinctive scent of rosemary is particularly powerful.

Folk medicine also associates rosemary with having a good memory. If you know your Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular, you’ll remember that Ophelia tells us ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance’. We also know that ancient Greek scholars wore garlands of rosemary during academic exams, hoping perhaps that a quick turn around the herb garden would serve instead of hours studying.

I bring a box of rosemary to most of the funeral ceremonies I lead and invite everyone to take a sprig as they leave (not where a family prefers alternatives). There’s strong symbolism – carrying rosemary, the herb of remembrance, out of the chapel is a visual reminder that they carry with them memories of the person who has died. And people instinctively create an olfactory memory as well – they almost always smell the rosemary as they take it.

But there’s even more going on, particularly if you’re interested in ancient traditions surrounding death and funerals.

Rosemary 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.

And that brings us to another reason rosemary is so suitable for funerals – the idea that rosemary represents eternal love as well as eternal life. 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.”

Whether because of its evocative smell, the old wives’ tales of medicinal properties or the symbolism of eternal life and love, rosemary has played a long and honourable part in our commemoration of people who’ve died.

Next time you attend a funeral, you might consider donating the money you would have spent on flowers to a favourite charity and taking instead a prettily bound bouquet of rosemary.

You’ll be following the customs of our ancestors stretching back thousands of years.

What’s in a name?

This is a version of an article I co-wrote for the online magazine, Farewells (Farewells.co.uk). It explains why I’m so proud to be part of the professional organisation that is setting the national standards for funeral celebrants.

At the beginning of a new year, it can be tempting to think about a bit of a re-brand. If ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, what about a name change just to shake things up?

It can work. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. But I bet you’ve heard of Yahoo, which is what it changed its name to in 1995.

On the other hand, look at the big brands that took a tumble when they tried a name change. The Royal Mail famously became Consignia in 2001 – and just as famously quietly went back to the old name just 12 months later.

For businesses in the funeral sector, their name is their reputation. Many funeral directors have a lineage stretching back several generations and it’s why, even though hundreds of them are now (often quite surreptitiously) in the hands of national chains, they’ve kept the name that local people know and respect.

It’s also why the organisation of which I’m a member – the oldest celebrant organisation in the UK and the only one dedicated to funerals – is proudly staying with the name The Institute of Civil Funerals (IoCF), despite briefly considering a change in 2020.

It is a name that says everything about its reputation.

The Institute of Civil Funerals is unique because only one organisation in any industry can have the right to be an Institute and the name comes with the responsibility of being a ‘professional body of the highest standing’. It is a protected term at Companies House and any other celebrant organisation using the term does so illegitimately.

An Institute also has to demonstrate that its activities are regulated and that it is committed to supporting training.

It means every IoCF member, like me, has already achieved the highest celebrancy qualification and is committed to helping families create the best possible funeral ceremonies for their loved ones – or even for themselves.

What would a ‘good’ celebrant mean for you?

A survey was published in September 2019 called ‘Funeral Experts by experience: what matters to them’ by Dr Julie Rugg, from the University of York and Dr Sarah Jones, from Full Circle Funerals. They interviewed people who had arranged a funeral to find out their experiences – including the use of a celebrant.

Some respondents spoke positively about celebrants who created a truly personal service, who worked closely with all family members and made suggestions that were appropriate for the deceased and the family. Unfortunately, there were others who remembered that the celebrant had got names and even genders wrong, who failed to consult or guide the family and who left them feeling as though they were on a conveyor belt.

Shocking, isn’t it?

IoCF is keen to set the bar high for its members because we believe that no family should have a poor experience arranging a funeral. That’s really kicking someone when they’re down.

‘The ‘Funeral Experts by experience’ survey shows what people want from a celebrant; sadly it also confirms that some celebrants just don’t meet the mark.

Until the time that funeral celebrants are regulated – and sadly, I think we’re a long way off that – families need an organisation like the IoCF.

They can be confident that every member on the IoCF website has already proved themselves as a fully qualified and professional celebrant and is regularly peer reviewed to ensure they stay that way.

They can be confident telling their funeral director that only an IoCF celebrant will do to help them with the overwhelmingly important task of arranging the final event in the life of their loved one.

For IoCF, it’s important to have not just a recognisable ‘brand’ but also to have integrity with the business name.

Change doesn’t always smell sweeter.