Thursday, September 4, 2008

Funeral Plants, Part I (for the senders)

We get a fair number of people at work calling or coming in to ask about houseplants that they've received via a funeral. Usually by the time they're asking about the plant, it's too late to help it, and it makes better economic sense to pitch it in the trash and buy a new one. I don't tell them that, though. They're attached; they have a history with the plant. Emotional investment and all. I get it. So we do what we can.

I think houseplants are one of the better things to send to funerals.1 Definitely preferable to flowers. My mother has a small speech about the inappropriateness of cut flower arrangements for funerals, which goes like this,

They're nice and everything, but every time you look at them, you're going to be reminded of the person who's just died, and then too the flowers aren't going to last forever either, they're just going to die and you're going to have to throw them away and it just makes the person that much deader. They're depressing and a waste of money.
Her version takes longer, but that's the gist. And I happen to agree with her, in case you didn't guess.

Aglaonema 'Maria,' a common condolence plant.

On one sad occasion at a previous job, a co-worker's father had just died (car/motorcycle accident), and there was a group discussion about what the department should send her family. Someone proposed a little yard ornament kind of thing, I don't remember what it allegedly looked like, but I remember that it was supposed to have the inscription "father and daughter" somewhere on it, or something like that, and I remember that I was very intensely against the idea. Intense to the degree that it kinda surprised me, even. My logic was, basically, that something like that was always going to look how it looked, and consequently was always going to symbolize what it symbolized, and maybe the co-worker wouldn't appreciate a daily knife through the heart for the rest of her life and we should look for something that would maybe change over time. I don't know, now, whether that logic was especially sound, but people did listen to me (all the more remarkable because I'd only been working there for about a month and a half), we went with a tree instead, and I can come up with a couple more reasons why whatever it was would have been a bad idea,2 so I remain comfortable with my argument.

Also, some such items are backhandedly horrible. Surely it would be better to have nothing at all than to have something like this:

And this is comforting how, exactly? Is it supposed to be cheery because it rhymes? I mean, holy crap, if you were looking for ways to prove that God is a total asshole. . . .

Probably, some people shouldn't be given houseplants either, but you're not necessarily sticking anybody with something they don't want by sending one. My most recent relative's funeral (grandmother) involved maybe a half-dozen houseplants, which her kids either took with them or not, depending on whether they wanted to and who'd sent them in the first place. This may or may not be typical for all families, but it strikes me as a sensible enough way of doing it.3 Anyway.

The flower shop tells me that the typical funeral plant order is very non-specific: usually something like "$30 green plant,"4 no more specific than that. Then they go in the greenhouse, find something of the specified price, put some foil on the pot and stick a card in, and out the door it goes.

Spathiphyllum spp., arguably the houseplant currently most associated with funerals.

Because the orders are usually so non-specific, whoever is filling the order for the flower shop has fairly broad discretion for what they can use to fill it, in theory. In practice, they stick as closely as possible to a few species regarded as safe, and ignore everything else unless they've got more particular instructions. So if you order a "green plant" for a funeral, you're probably going to be getting one of these eight:

Aglaonema spp. (Chinese evergreen; especially the darker varieties like 'Maria')
Dieffenbachia spp. (somewhat disfavored due to toxicity, but still usable, especially if they look nice)
Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime,' 'Janet Craig,' 'Warneckei/Jumbo/Ulises'
Ficus benjamina (I don't approve of Ficus benjamina for funerals: ficus trees can be nerve-wracking enough without adding the pressure of keeping the plant alive in honor of someone who has died. Among other things, you can pretty much guarantee that they're going to drop a bunch of leaves within that first two or three weeks. The one big plus is that they're exceptionally planty-looking.)
Ficus elastica (particularly the darker black-purple varieties like 'Burgundy')
Philodendron 'Xanadu' or 'Hope' (infrequently used)
Spathiphyllum spp. (the overwhelming majority of funeral orders seem to be filled with Spathiphyllums or Ficus elasticas)
Syngonium podophyllum cvv. (arrowhead vine)

Why so limited? Well, there are a lot of things to take into account. You want something relatively straightforwardly planty-looking so the grief-stricken will know what it is,5 something non-trailing so that people aren't stepping on it during delivery or at the service, something relatively upright and compact, something that's not going to fall to pieces as it gets moved from place to place over the next couple weeks, and something that is size/price proportionate. One criterion which surprised me is that plants that are too sharp and angular (Yucca guatemalensis, e.g.) are usually passed over, too. Some people find visual jaggedness unsettling. I don't really relate to those people, but I can still take it into account.

There's certainly nothing stopping you from asking for a particular plant that's not on the Big 8 list. I think there are definite reasons to consider any reasonably large and respectable-looking specimen, of any mostly upright and easy-care plant. Zamioculcas zamiifolia, Ficus maclellandii (pointiness be damned!), Dracaena fragrans,6 Rhapis excelsa, Dracaena surculosa, Sansevieria trifasciata, maybe even a bromeliad like Guzmania spp. or Vriesea splendens.

Ficus elastica 'Rubra,' I think. (I could be mistaken about the cultivar name.) Also a very common condolence plant.

But more important than what you get, at least to my mind, is whether or not the recipient knows how to care for it when they get it. I don't know how many florists would do this for you, but if you could get them to include a care tag that contains some actual information, instead of just a tag that reads "Peace lily. Tolerates low light. Keep evenly moist," that would be a big step in the right direction.

Of course, that assumes that you're dealing with florists who know how to care for the plants they're selling, which is not as safe of a bet as you'd think. So hedge your bets and ask for a tag with the botanical and common names, so that the recipient can look up care info if s/he wants to.7 The florist might think you're being high-maintenance, and maybe you are, but the plant may need all the advantages you can give it. 'Cause bad things happen when people try to guess at a plant's needs based on how it looks.


Photo credits: My photos, except for the Ficus elastica, which was by donation from Garden Webber "Pepperomia."

1 I think food is better, because it is practical and useful. The grieving don't necessarily want to eat, but they still need to, and if there's food right there, then that's one less obstacle to doing so.
2 A "father and daughter" object is not especially respectful to the mother or brother (with whom the co-worker was still living at the time); also such ornaments are sometimes exquisitely tacky, not something you want to commit to sight unseen. People, for the most part, are comfortable with the existence of trees, and consequently don't mind more of them, but it takes a much narrower slice of the population to be okay with any given lawn decoration. Though people do hold grudges against specific trees sometimes, so it's not a sure bet.
3 No, I didn't take one. I probably could have, if I'd wanted, and nobody would have said anything. And it would even have been somewhat appropriate, since the grandmother in question is probably the person most responsible for me being into houseplants. (Not in a huggable, movie-montage, bonding-over-seedlings way. She was never ever ever a cuddly, twinkly-eyed grandmother. Not even a little bit. But she liked houseplants, and had several, and also had houseplant books, which I could entertain myself with while she did other stuff elsewhere in the house.) But the options were boring. Peace lilies, mainly. There was a croton too. And a mum. Yawn.
4 "Green plants" don't have to be green, and they also don't have to be plants grown for foliage necessarily. The meaning, as it's used where I work, anyway, is basically a plant that one could reasonably expect to look acceptably good in three months, given ordinary semicompetent care. The antonym is "blooming plants," which are things like Rieger begonias, azaleas, cyclamens, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, and so forth, all of which conceivably could survive to bloom again, but which aren't likely to do so unless someone really knows what they're doing. But still, "blooming plants" may have nice foliage (cyclamen), and "green plants" may have flowers (Anthurium).
5 No, seriously. The brains of people who are grieving aren't necessarily working right. If you're going to send a plant, send one that looks as much like the platonic ideal of the word houseplant as possible. (An absolutely devastating firsthand account of brains not working right due to grief can be found in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Not everybody will like it - Didion is taken to task in the Amazon reviews for being cold, repetitive, and oddly detached - but this, of course, is precisely the point: that's how she always wrote before the death of her husband, and that's still how she writes after. The point is not how she tells you, it's what she tells you: details like not being willing to get rid of her husband's shoes because some part of her brain was insisting that he would be coming back, and that when he came back he would need shoes. The degree to which you'll like the book is probably parallel to the degree to which you overlap her in personality and worldview. Check your public library.)
6 (which actually does get used occasionally, though not so much by us: we don't generally have very many of them in stock at any given time, for reasons which are unclear to me. Though they should be clear, since I'm the person who decides what we have in stock at any given time.)
7 Tragically, most people won't bother to. Even in the Age of Google, a surprising number of people have no idea how to find information about anything: it doesn't occur to them to go buy a book, or look in the library, or go on-line and do a search. I could tell you stories about the phone calls I get. One is tempted to assume that these people have never needed to know anything before, ever, and consequently never developed these skills, but that's impossible, right? Nobody gets through life without occasionally needing to look stuff up, do they?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do occasionally give plants as gifts, but only to people I know well enough to pick something particular to them. Or sometimes as thank you gifts, figuring they will last longer than cut flowers but likely no more than a few months or so.

But I don't like giving plants at funerals. I think grieving people have too much on their minds to feel they must be responsible for keeping GRANDMA'S PLANT alive. Now, pitching in to plant a tree in honor of someone I like, assuming they have a yard and aren't likely to move away any time soon.

I have gotten way too many questions over the years about keeping funeral plants alive. It seems that the questioner is usually feeling quite guilty about not keeping that special plant happy. I feel bad for them.

Peace lilies are actually quite finicky. I guess the concept of "peace" is nice for the bereaved, but caring for them is anything but peaceful.

Mr s, GO ORDER some Dracaena fragrans. Right now. Lots of them. They are awesome, underappreciated plants! I am going to start a campaign to replace every peace lily on earth with one. Now, GO, already! Well, I guess the store is probably closed right now, but next time you're ordering plants anyway. Assuming all the hurricanes don't kill all the tropical plants in Florida, that is.