When considering grave decorations, we in western cultures generally think of framed photographs, plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears. Our ideas of remembrance and sentimentality are generally personalised and frequently mimic the gifts we’d leave the individual in life.
Passing through any contemporary burial site will bring you to piles of ribbons, laminated poems and unsmoked cigarettes. Alongside these personal effects nestle ornaments of cherubs, resin angels and plastic flowers. These mass-produced indicators of loss and grief are only a small step away from our forebears mourning efforts – while rising costs and health and safety may forbid the erection of a four-foot angel statue, a high street florist can sell you a small cherub and still leave you with change from £10.
While stone cherubs and angels last indefinitely, flowers are the most common decoration in mourning, retaining their place by the graveside for centuries. Flowers may well be a traditional necessity of sorts, but they have a limited lifespan. Plastic flowers may last longer, but discolour and weather over time and similarly must be replaced. However, Victorian ‘Immortelles’ (from the French word for ‘everlasting’) offered a more lasting floral graveside option.
The term ‘Immortelles’ generally refers to the huge beaded wreaths left at gravesides predominantly in western Europe, particularly France. These wire-wrapped, beaded creations could reach up to four feet in diameter and were generally displayed above a mausoleum or tomb. While not directly personalised for the interred person, these wreaths incorporated flower motifs, words, crosses and even preserved flowers in domes.
Over time, the fine wire securing the beads would weather and disintegrate, leaving the immortelle as a pile of black beads, ready to be reused for another project or simply lost and scattered to time.
‘Immortelle’ is also applied to ceramic and glass-domed wreaths that were particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.
While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down.
Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery has a beautiful Immortelle on display beneath their Spielman centre which was uncovered several years ago while clearing a grave site. Arnos employee and academic Janine Marriott reported that ‘The plaster wreath got covered in dirt and leaf debris during the years Arnos Vale was neglected which actually protected this delicate item from animals, vandalism and weather. Once it was lifted from the grave, it was then cleaned and repaired before being returned to the archives in the cemetery.’
The wreath now sits pride of place in their cemetery where it may be enjoyed for generations to come. Similarly, Market Lavington museum in Devizes has two beautiful immortelles in their possession which were in situ until the 1930s. These differ from the Arnos wreath as they were protected from the elements by both glass domes and external cages.
While wreaths are most common, much like contemporary mourners, many Victorian and Edwardian mourners chose to decorate graves with plaster motifs such as clasped hands, bibles, singular flowers and birds. These are far more commonplace in historical cemeteries as they generally lay lower and flatter to the grave, meaning that if vegetation takes hold, they are protected from the elements far better than a glass dome or brittle petal. It is these simplistic monuments that most mimic our modern cherubs and sentimental carved stones.
Are there any immortelles in cemeteries or museums near you?