Although today’s cemeteries are mostly filled with ornamental plants and decorative trees, you may have noticed that some species such as pine, cypress and yew are more common. So, what are these tree species that have spiritual and folkloric meanings beyond their decorative function? What do the trees planted in cemeteries symbolize?
The History of the Tradition of Planting Trees in Cemeteries
Anthropologist Alan Barnard wrote that symbolic thinking emerged about 130,000 years ago.1 Therefore, it can be said that symbolic elements have been a part of our daily life and social culture for thousands of years.
Two of the most basic symbolic elements of culture are customs and traditions. Societies have long had traditions, customs and practices associated with death. Some anthropologists have argued that even Neanderthals may have had certain rites and practices related to death, but there is no consensus yet.
When it comes to the phenomenon of death, it is possible to see both similar and original practices in many civilizations. One of them is the tradition of planting trees in cemeteries.
Although it has been known that certain tree species have been deliberately planted in cemeteries since ancient times, there is no definite data on when this tradition emerged. However, since such a burial practice was not expected in hunter-gatherer groups, it is thought that the custom of planting trees in cemeteries emerged after the Neolithic.
Tree Symbolism and Cemetery Trees
Trees are important for all humanity, no doubt. This is reflected in the arts, epics, legends and myths of many civilizations. In fact, some tree species were considered sacred, and mythical practices emerged such as not speaking aloud near trees. People connected the cosmological realms with a symbol they called the tree of life and tried to explain the universe and life. On the other hand, some tree species were also associated with death, and they were planted in cemeteries so that the soul of the deceased could reach peace.
Mulberry is a tree grown not only for its delicious fruits, but also for its leaves and trunk. The leaves of mulberry trees have been used in sericulture, and their trunks have been used in instrument making since ancient times. Therefore, mulberry trees have gained a sacred status in some societies over time. In Southern Uzbekistan, the woman who was found in a tomb thought to date from the 2nd century BC, was holding a mulberry branch on her chest.
Planting mulberry trees next to the graves or choosing places close to mulberry trees for the burial place is a tradition that continues to exist in Turks, although it is not common.
In Turkic communities, some trees are described as pillars that hold the earth with their roots and the sky with their branches, and they are considered as helping the shaman to travel between the realms during trance. The tree symbolism, which has lasted for centuries, has been embedded in the social memory and has found a place for itself in many areas of daily life. One of them is planting trees on graves.
Turkish historian Bahaettin Ögel stated that the tradition of planting trees in cemeteries dates back to ancient times. Trees planted next to the graves helped the soul of the dead ascend to God or heaven, just as the shaman ascended to the sky during a trance.
Trees like mulberry that shed their leaves every autumn and turn green again in spring symbolize eternity and resurrection in Turkic folklore. For this reason, the trees planted next to the graves also symbolize sending the dead to eternal life.
The mulberry tree symbolism is also found in Greek mythology. Two lovers, who are not asked to marry each other by their parents, make an agreement to meet under a mulberry tree next to a grave. However, the man who sees the cloak of the girl he loves in the mouth of a lion, thinks that the lion killed his lover and commits suicide. The blood scattering around dyes the white fruits of the mulberry tree red. Later, the girl sees the man she loves under the mulberry tree covered in blood and she commits suicide too. After that day, with the approval of the gods, the mulberry fruits (Morus nigra) take the color of blood when they ripen.2
Pine, which is a species of Pinaceae family, is a coniferous and fragrant tree. Due to their resistance to cold and harsh weather conditions, many pine species are spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere except deserts. Pine trees are mostly long-lived and thus viewed by Native Americans as a symbol of longevity.
With a few exceptions, trees associated with burial practices and planted in cemeteries are mostly evergreen species. The pine trees, which can stay green in all seasons, are associated with eternity and immortality due to this feature. Therefore, it is possible to see pine trees in many cemeteries in Asia, Europe, and North America.
Beyond their symbolic meanings, pine trees were also used in coffin making, as they are common.
In the past, the best gift that could be given to a newborn baby in Korea was pine branches. Because, like Native Americans, Koreans associated pine trees with longevity. They also used to believe that Korean pine carried the souls of the dead to the other world.3
Cypress, a species from the Cupressaceae family, is a tall tree species that can grow in many climates. Just like pine trees, they are coniferous and their leaves are green in all seasons. Cypresses are likened to someone who is virtuous, just and upright, due to their tall stature and upright stance.
The cypress tree has many symbolic meanings in both Asian and European folklore. Thanks to their deep roots, they can stand against strong winds without being destroyed. This symbolizes the determination to stand up against difficulties.
The cypress tree, which is usually associated with honesty and longevity like the pine tree, is considered one of the symbols of death in the Near East and Mediterranean countries. It is common to plant cypress trees in cemeteries, especially in Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. It is believed that the cypress tree, which stands like a guard at the head of the grave, conveys prayers to God and helps the soul of the dead rise to the sky.
It is known that pine and cypress trees were planted next to the tombs of some Chinese rulers in the past. The German sinologist and ethnologist Wolfram Eberhard mentioned that cypress trees were planted in cemeteries in China. He also wrote that cypress trees live long and symbolize longevity.4
Juniper, another tree species from the Cupressaceae family, is also sometimes planted as a cemetery tree. Many communities used to believe that juniper tree and juniper incense ward off evil creatures.
Yew, a coniferous species of the Taxaceae family, is an evergreen tree. It has spread to many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. The Far East, Europe and North America are the areas where it is most common. The yew tree, which mostly likes moist and shady places, is a species that can live for thousands of years.
Two yew trees thought to be at least 4000 years old have been found in Llangernyw in Wales and Zonguldak in Turkey.
All organs of the yew tree are poisonous except for the red fleshy part of the fruit. When their overhanging branches come into contact with the earth, they take root and turn into new trunks over time. This is one reason why yew trees are long-lived.
Both its poisonous nature and its unique growth style have helped yew trees symbolize death and rebirth in many cultures. This is why yew trees are often planted in cemeteries across Europe.
The yew tree, which plays an important role in Celtic symbolism, is common both in cemeteries and in churchyards today.
Some yew trees in European churches are older than the arrival of Christianity in the area. This shows that churches were deliberately built around yew trees or on old pagan temples.
Many tree species were considered sacred in Slavic communities too. Except for a few species… Art historian Gönül Uzelli mentioned that some Slavic communities considered willow trees and white poplars (Populus alba) to be cursed, and that they stabbed the witches’ graves with stakes made of white poplar wood.5
Cedar, a coniferous tree species from the Pinaceae family, can reach 50 meters in height. Therefore, it has symbolized long life in many civilizations. Like other evergreen tree species, the cedar is often associated with immortality. That is why cedar trees are planted in some cemeteries.
Just like the juniper tree, the cedar tree is believed in some societies to drive away evil spirits. However, according to a superstition in the United States, it is bad luck to bring cedar branches into the house outside of the Christmas season.6
- “Genesis of Symbolic Thought”, Alan BARNARD, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 978-1107025691
- “The Mulberry Tree in the Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe“, Catherine Campbell RHORER, Cambridge University Press, July 4, 2014
- “Pinus koraiensis – Korean Pine“, Jim GORMAN, Mount Auburn Cemetery, January 3, 2018
- “A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols”, Wolfram EBERHARD, Routledge & Kegan Paul, ISBN: 9780710201911
- “Slav Mitolojisi: İnanışlar ve Söylenceler”, Gönül UZELLİ, Yapı Kredi Yayınları, ISBN: 9789750837463
- “So They Say“, Vicki BENCH, Bittersweet, Volume I, No. 4, 1974