Let’s start today with some fun facts that will become relevant further on.
First of all, did you know that the practice of putting flowers on graves was used in Ancient Rome in order to give the spirits a comforting and decorative environment in which to roam about? (Although the practice of laying flowers at grave sites had been around before this, so they didn’t invent it – but pretty cool nonetheless). In the Victorian era, having floral gravestone markings became very fashionable. Popular flower symbols included the lily, which represented innocence and purity, and were most often used on the gravestones of women and children, and the rose, which represented unfailing love. There’s reams more I could write on the subject of floral symbolism in the Victorian age, but I’ll leave that for another day…
Secondly, a word on Victorian hair, which was never cut, except in cases of severe illness. The term ‘a woman’s crowning glory’ comes from the Victorian era, but actually, women’s hair during this period tended to be extremely damaged, from excessive use of hot irons. In this respect, the Victorians were not so very different from us – except that nobody had invented GHDs back then, and so the straightening and curling irons that were used had no form of protection for hair against their heat. Hair would get so frazzled that it ended up taking on a wool-like texture. A pre-cursor to dreadlocks perhaps. As someone who has more than once bleached and burned my hair to a pulp, I can kinda relate to this stuff.
One final Victorian hair fact before I move on: curly hair was supposed to indicate a sweeter temperament in a woman, while straight hair indicated a reserved or even awkward personality. I have no idea what fashionistas in the 1870s would have made of what I’m about to tell you next…
This week I shaved my head, not because I was dying of Typhoid, as would be the case a century and a half ago, but in order to raise more money for the two charities I support (Refugee Action and The Ben Kinsella Trust ), and am running the London Marathon for next month. Someone said to me ‘have you thought about shaving your head?’ And that was all it took. I got my hairdresser to do it the next day. I didn’t realise how big a part of a persons identity hair is until mine was gone. I knew I would mourn the loss of it but it’s quite a powerful ache – the loss feels greater than I thought it would. Which is silly, because hair grows. In fact, mine has already grown and it’s been less than a week. There’s a long way to to until I have long, flowing blue locks again though.
This same week, Sheldon brought me a bunch of flowers, because it was my birthday. It’s a beautiful bouquet of purple and white blooms and it came all wrapped up in purple paper, with ribbons and twine and everything. There are irises, and lilacs, and white roses with purple tips that are some of the prettiest roses I’ve ever seen, and more flowers that I don’t know what on earth they are, but Sheldon will know because he’s a horticulture GENIUS.
I love them and they are in pride of place in my house, taking centre stage and making the whole place smell wonderful. But I’m sad because pretty soon, they will die, and I find myself mourning their loss already, rather than enjoying them.
This post isn’t leading anywhere specific. I just wanted to write about mourning the loss of my hair and my flowers, and how doing these things makes me realise even more that there are lots of different types of loss and memorial. These things are very trivial but our lives are full of them. Flowers die, seasons change, hair gets cut off, friendships end and people move away. They are the ends of eras, although not in the same way that Queen Victoria dying signalled the end of the Victorian era.
So what will you take away from today’s Cemetery Club post? I hope that you’ll look at the photo of me with no hair that I’m going to leave at the bottom of this post and think ‘wow okay that’s pretty drastic, maybe I’ll donate some money to one of these fantastic causes’ (the links are at the bottom too). I hope that you’ll be able to identify the types of flowers that make up Sheldon’s amazing bouquet and tell me what they are. And I hope that you’ll learn a little about Victorian hair and the history of flowers on graves. I’ve enjoyed reading about both.
All photographs except Victorian hair diagram by Christina Owen
Donate to Refugee Action and help me feel less bald/run the marathon faster