Five Rules for Arranging Funeral Flowers

Friday, July 15, 2016

1. Choose flowers that still have enough life left in them to make it through the service. Many florists will tell you that funerals are the perfect opportunity to purge the cooler of older flowers. While it is true that the funeral service only lasts a few hours, the worst call you can get as a florist comes from an outraged family member, because the $300 spray they ordered wilted. The whole point of putting up a bunch of flowers at funerals is to distract from death, not remind everyone of it.

The one class I never taught during my tenure as a community college floral design teacher was Funeral Design. I avoided it for several reasons. The fee the students paid was nowhere near enough money to create a realistic version of a casket spray or standing wreath. With only a few years of experience under my belt, I didn’t feel ready to teach funeral work, as the arrangements were some of the most difficult to execute in floristry. Plus, the subject matter was weird and depressing. Despite my valiant avoidance tactics, my students still asked about funeral flowers any chance they got. They always smiled nervously, afraid to cross into the taboo territory dying has become in modern America. I tried to answer as best as I could.

Marta, a little woman in her forties who always showed up twenty minutes late for class, turned and said something under her breath to the woman next to her. Marta spoke English, but for the first few weeks of class she wasn’t confident speaking to the group, so any question would be asked in Spanish and translated by Sharon who shared a workstation with her. Sharon had immigrated from somewhere in South America years before Marta came here from Mexico, so her English was substantially better than Marta’s, and she always wore capri pants.

“She says she went to a funeral this weekend and most of the flowers were beautiful, but in one of the arrangements the lilies were really old and floppy looking. Why does that happen?”

I held up a long-stemmed red rose. The stem wasn’t stripped of thorns and leaves yet, a process performed with a metal tool that looked like a set of silver vampire teeth you might wear for Halloween. The thorns gleamed a dark red in the light.

“This flower,” I said to all the students, “is dying. It started dying the minute it was cut from the bush, in Ecuador or wherever, and has kept on dying ever since.”

I took the job teaching floral design classes for the community college a few weeks after Jon and I got married. Jon’s grown-up job at a healthcare firm had been delayed several times until the start date was a full three months late. Circumstances had nominated me as the breadwinner, a part-time florist making just over ten dollars an hour. Two years and two jobs later, and although I was no longer supporting us financially, I was teaching my final night class to buoy our two-person, two-dog household with some extra cash.

“We’ve been slowing the process down by packaging the flowers with ice packs before shipping and keeping them in the cooler, but forcing the flower to be dormant in the cold will only work for so long.”

I looked around to see whether the students were tracking with me. We were at the standard 70 percent interest level I had come to expect. It didn’t really matter. The program was meant to serve as a route for adults looking to change careers, but most students weren’t interested in that. Only one of the students in this group had expressed any interest in becoming a florist, a twenty-year-old waitress with a mohawk, but she had stopped showing up two weeks into the ten-week course. The other eleven women were hobbyists, many of them retired.

“The whole point of floristry is stretching out the end of the flower’s life as long as possible so that the recipient can enjoy them for a week or two and, if we’re lucky, write something nice about us on the Internet.”

Marta whispered something to Sharon.

“She says she got roses at Costco and they lasted for a month,” Sharon said.

“That can happen,” I said. “That’s how you know you did a good job prolonging their lifespan.”

Marta smiled and nodded to herself.

“My point is, if you want to send something alive to a funeral, you have to send a plant. The cut arrangements are already on borrowed time, so as florists we have to choose flowers carefully, so that nothing dies and embarrasses the sender.”

I lifted the rose again.

“Does anyone know the trick for telling if a rose is old or not?” I asked.

The women glanced at each other, anxious. The classes were held at whichever shop I currently worked out of. The workspace was small at this shop, and the students were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder at a mixture of sturdy, built-in work tables and folding card tables. By this point in class, the checkered tile floor was almost entirely blanketed in leaves and stems, and each woman had a nearly completed flower arrangement in a glass vase in front of her. They should have known by now that there was no need to avoid eye contact when I asked questions. I had never called on a student if information wasn’t volunteered. The course was pass-fail based on attendance. Learning, although appreciated, was not necessary for certificate completion.

I pointed to the base of the bloom, where the petals wrapped over the fringe of yellow pollen at their center.

“You squeeze right here. If there’s a hard lump there, the rose is still opening and young, even if it’s open. If you squeeze and there’s no lump, the rose is on its way out.”

On its way out was a phrase I had picked up from other floral designers at the last shop I worked at. The realistic term would be dead, but it was best to avoid that word with customers, so that they wouldn’t think we were trying to pass off bad product. Plus, on its way out sounds less final. I wouldn’t be afraid of death if I knew I was just on my way out, out of town, out of this world—maybe I would be back, but maybe not.

The women grabbed for the roses on their desks. Some squeezed timidly, others brusquely. Sharon mashed her yellow rose a little too hard, so the petals crushed into each other and showered onto the work table.

“Oh, just grab a new one. There are a few extra in the back,” I said.

I didn’t say, “The problem with this whole idea of fresh flowers, with everything really, is that every organism starts dying the moment it starts existing. Every flower and every person in this shop is on their way out, and all we sell as florists is the illusion of life.”

That would have been harsh. I had a feeling my face was saying what I was thinking, though, because Sharon walked carefully around me to get to her desk, like a soldier who wasn’t sure where the land mines were. I had only been teaching for two years, but I got the feeling that students, even adult ones, were like tuning forks for negative energy. Even the smallest amount of disinterest or frustration on my part would be resonated right back to me. I needed to turn it around.

“We had a girl one time who said she needed a flower arrangement that would last a long time. When I asked how long it needed to live, she said six months. I said, ‘Any cut arrangement lives a maximum of three weeks.’ Then she said, ‘Nothing could live for a couple months? Not even the closed lilies?’”

“What did you tell her to do? What lives for six months?” Sharon asked.

“Sticks,” I said, “although technically, they’re already dead.”

2. Be sure that the customer understands exactly what they are getting for their money. Sometimes a funeral order is the customers first time buying flowers in many years, and they might not know that an arrangement that cost forty dollars in the Sixties would be closer to eighty dollars now. Telling a customer that they arent spending enough on a funeral arrangement is uncomfortable, but its better to have an awkward interaction over the phone up front than to mislead them and get a complaint. Remember, you only get one shot at a funeral. Dont mess it up.

“How much is a casket spray here?” Sharon asked me.

I started. It was dozen-rose week, and I had been gazing at my arrangement while the ladies wrestled their roses into position. I was trying to decide whether I needed to move one rogue rose in my example arrangement, or if it was close enough to where it was supposed to be.

“They start at three-fifty,” I said.

“Three hundred?” Sharon said.

Her eyebrows arched perilously close to her hairline as she repeated the number in Spanish to Marta.

“Anything below that price gets complaints for being too small. You guys should remember this. It isn’t worth it to send something out if it’s going to be too small or sparse, particularly for funerals. You have to guide the customer to spend the right amount for what they want,” I said.

Marta whispered something to Sharon.

“So you just tell customers not to be cheap?” Sharon asked.

“Well, in a nice way, yeah,” I said.

I remembered a recent conversation with a woman who called looking for a dozen sunflowers. Our price was far too high, in her opinion, especially since she could order the same arrangement on the Internet for half of what I was suggesting sunflowers cost. Her voice had warbled, broken down from age, but it had a hardness behind it that made me nervous from the outset of our conversation.

“It’s not really the same arrangement,” I had said. “The one you’re referring to is nine sunflowers and some Gerbera daisies, and our products are better quality than that.”

Her icy silence radiated out of the phone.

“It’s up to you,” I said.

Most of the time when a customer started quoting prices off the Internet, you could assume that the sale was not going to happen. After a few years of experience, I didn’t try that hard to recover the sale. I made eye contact with a little red light that glowed malevolently to show me I was on line one.

“Could you include one sunflower at that price and use some other flowers?” she asked.

I said I could. But when she told me the arrangement was going to a funeral home, I put the brakes on.

“The small mixed arrangement comes in a six-inch-tall container,” I said. “For that price we would typically recommend a nice large plant, so that your arrangement doesn’t get lost next to all the big funeral pieces that are going to be there.”

It may have been different in other areas of the country, but in the South funeral flowers were a big deal, and sending small arrangements to funerals always ended badly, with customers screaming and weeping on the phone.

“Listen,” she said, “this girl was an unemployed, unmarried twenty-year-old with only a few broke friends. Nobody is sending flowers for a girl like that. They will be happy to have one small arrangement.”

I looked over at the orders for the following day. They were already spread out across the delivery desk so I could prep the containers and let the owner know if anything needed to be picked up from the wholesaler.

“Was her name Emily?” I asked.

She said it was, and I heard the surprise in her voice. For some reason, that small chink in her armor emboldened me.

“We already have an order for her service for two hundred and fifty dollars, ma’am.”

She sputtered a little, and a weight started to lift off my shoulders.

“Well, that must be from her parents,” she said.

“A group of her friends came in, the firefighters from her boyfriend’s truck. They all put money in to get something special for her.”

“Well, isn’t that sweet,” she said, in a tone that implied the opposite. “They should have done something for her when she was alive.”

She hung up so hard that I felt the sound thud into my eardrum and jumped backward. I brought the phone back to my ear to be sure she was gone. The dial tone commiserated with my sigh.

I shrugged and hung up the phone, and I laughed when I told my boss the story. But later that night, when my husband’s breath finally quieted into its sleep rhythm, I thought about that girl, five years younger than me and gone, and that woman, many years older but full of a hardness I hoped never crept into my voice. A dry, grainy sadness poured into my dreams. It didn’t leave for days.

Back in class, I realized Marta had asked me something herself for once, and I felt bad when I asked her to repeat it.

“What do you send to a funeral if you can’t afford something nice like that?” she asked.

“Yourself,” I said. “It’s always best to just send yourself.”

3. Its tempting to use funerals as an excuse to try a more creative design. I recommend that you resist that urge, unless specifically directed by the customer. You only get one shot at a funeral arrangement. A difference in opinion about asymmetrical greenery or inventive use of color that would be easily resolved the next time they ordered under normal circumstances could wind up ruining your relationship. Also, dont put a bow on it. The sender isnt giving the survivors a present.

Sometimes during class, I would show the students any interesting orders for the following day. They loved going in the cooler and poking around with me. It is possible that they were simply happy to have a break from listening to me talk, no matter what the activity.

I pointed to a big glass urn full of orange daisies and bright violet hydrangea.

“This one’s for a funeral tomorrow. I guess the guy was really into Clemson. They said it had to be in the team colors,” I said.

The ladies made little noises behind closed lips, as though they were looking at a rare museum exhibit.

“One of my new life goals since working here is never to be so interested in anything that people think it needs to be the theme for my funeral,” I said.

“What’s the craziest funeral order you’ve made?” Sharon asked.

“That’s an easy one. I did a casket spray for a hunter, and his kids brought in a pair of antlers that they wanted mounted in the spray itself,” I said.

Marta’s nose wrinkled.

“They wanted deer antlers in the flowers?” she asked.

“I had to strap them to the floral foam with wire. The weirdest part was that they were tiny. The deer couldn’t have been much more than a baby. Who would be proud of killing something little like that?” I said.

A few people nodded, but in South Carolina it’s strange not to hunt. Most of them stared blankly at me. Southern women have a special facial expression that takes over when they hear something they disagree with, a neutral beyond neutral where all their features melt together into a slab of disinterest.

“It reminded me of the pharaohs being buried with their servants,” I said.

I wasn’t sure why some funeral orders got so weird, but my hypothesis was that it had something to do with the survivors’ need for their experience of grief to be unique. My English teacher in high school used to say that there’s only one type of happiness, but there are infinite types of pain. I’m not sure who he was quoting, maybe Kafka or David Foster Wallace? Whatever the reasons, the craziest requests I have ever received have all been for funeral work. One woman needed a black heart made of carnations with a red border and a silver bow. Another described what sounded like a life-sized diorama made of flowers.

“It’s like a long, low box with flowers in it and a guy made of flowers holding a fishing pole, and the fishing line goes down into a pond made of flowers at the other end,” she said.

“Did you see this on the Internet?” I asked.

“No, I don’t know how you would do it, but that’s what it needs to be. My budget is seventy dollars, but I don’t mind if you use mums. Also, it has to have a real fishing pole.”

When I first started arranging flowers, I looked forward to the bizarre funeral orders. I thought of them as opportunities to show my bosses my creativity. After three years of funerals, my stance on the unusual arrangements started to change. Although the idea of your own special grief seems romantic in theory, I think in practice it probably doesn’t help very much to think you have your own unique snowflake of misery. To me, the knowledge that every other person who lives long enough will eventually go through the same losses is comforting. It makes grief seem more natural, almost like a rite of passage for being human.

4. Dont let the large scale of a standing spray or casket blanket become overwhelming to you. As long as you maintain the basic principles of floral design that we have discussed over the past few weeks and focus on good placement of flowers, the piece will work on its own. Remember to organize the piece into triangles and diagonal lines. People love to see a pattern in nature, even if its manmade.

“Why do we send flowers to funerals?” Marta asked.

“Why? I think it’s a comforting gesture,” I said.

We were on a five-minute break from soldiering through yet another mixed arrangement, when I heard someone creep into the cooler behind me. I tried not to sigh when I realized it was Marta again. The entry-level floral design syllabus was structured around easy mixed arrangements of cheap flowers to keep costs down for the shops that hosted the school. Unfortunately, inexpensive yet simple floral arrangements looked the way they sounded. I compensated by taking frequent breaks, which I spent pretending to move things around in the cooler.

Marta had seen through the strategy. Determined to get her money’s worth, she followed me into the cooler, notebook in hand. She was fine speaking directly to me only when we were one-on-one. I wasn’t sure why she wouldn’t ask questions in class. Her English was not that bad, so I hoped our conversations would help her build confidence.  I listened to her pen scratching out comforting and released a load of air from my chest. Marta always seemed to pop up and barrage me with questions whenever I was taking a moment to myself. She obsessed over funerals and blue roses, neither of which were topics I wanted to discuss at any length.

“My mentor told me that people used to have funerals in their homes. Before embalming was a common practice, heavily scented flowers like the lilies we still use today were helpful to mask the smells,” I said.

I pulled a few broken stems out of a bucket, and she kept writing.

“I mean, nowadays even embalming smells weird, so they still kind of serve the same purpose. Funeral homes all smell funny.”

“I can’t believe people kept untreated bodies in their houses,” she said.

I pitched the broken stems into an industrial trashcan outside the cooler door.

“Want to see something weird?” I asked.

I waved her out of the cooler, and by the time we made it through the workroom to the back storage area, our field trip had picked up several attendants.

The back storage room was an unfinished area between two walls in the old building. The door didn’t actually latch, but the hook-and-eye lock held it close to shut when it wasn’t in use.

“Watch your step,” I said.

The dropoff was about a foot, from the shop into the storage room. I hopped down.

Marta followed reluctantly. Most of the entourage was content to peek around the door.

I pointed at the object of our quest.

The casket lid would have been imposing no matter what, despite the casual way it leaned against the wall. It looked like it levitated, but upon inspection, the ironing board leg showed the hybrid’s true nature.

“What is it?” Marta asked. Her lips parted over nervous teeth.

“It’s a coffin lid mounted on an ironing board. The previous owner used to use it to make casket sprays. Crazy, right?” I said.

I didn’t tell them the reason we had kept the board. A few weeks after Mary, the new owner, bought the shop, the old owner had come in to use the board to make a spray for her best friend, who had passed unexpectedly in her thirties. When I asked Mary when we would throw the casket away, she had looked away and said that she would always remember the old owner working into the night on it, trying to make the perfect spray for her lost friend. I dropped it.

“Do you use that thing?” Marta asked.

“Certainly not,” I said. “It’s so creepy.”

“It’s huge,” Marta said.

“It’s for a six-foot-tall person, and they have to leave a little room at each end so it isn’t cramped,” I said.

A good question nobody asked was, “Why are you so disturbed by a coffin lid? It’s just a piece of wood, and clearly it wasn’t ever a functional coffin. The lid is on an ironing board.”

“My Western experience of death has been very limited. I’ve only been to one funeral that was even open casket, and I was too far away to see our church’s janitor in his casket. It all seems unreal because I never see it. I just talk to people about it on the phone all day. I wish we still had house funerals,” I would have said.

“Really?” they might have asked.

“Well, no, I guess I don’t. But I wish I did.”

5. Lastly, dont think about death too much. It will only drag you down and make you miserable, and the flowers will show it. This is the hard part.

January in general was a difficult time at any flower shop. The weather turned bleak after Christmas, and virtually no weddings were ever booked because of the drizzly weather. The bulk of what little business we had was always funerals upon funerals. My mentor explained to me once that the elderly tended to give up after Christmas and Fourth of July. The truth of that statement continued to surprise me for years. Can a person really die just from not having a holiday to look forward to? Plus, suicides always spiked in the winter, with the peak occurring in January.

The constant funerals in January and July can be difficult for new floral designers. The lead designer at my first floral job took me aside my first January to advise me that frequent thoughts of death were inescapable until you weathered a few funeral seasons. She suggested trying not to think about it too much.

My favorite part of winter class sessions was always the quiet in the shop after all the students left. I loved the way my footsteps echoed off the old linoleum when I loaded the leftover flowers into the cooler. The quiet squeak of my work shoes, orthopedic sandals, reminded me of empty hallways when I was a kid, happy to get out of class with a bathroom pass. Some of my happiest moments occur when I find myself suddenly alone after a storm of people finally moves offshore.

Sometimes, though, being by myself was a disadvantage.

After one class in January, I spread out the orders for the next day on the delivery desk. One name stuck out: a little girl we had been sending flowers, stuffed animals, and balloons to for weeks as she underwent treatment for some kind of cancer in the hospital.

I knew it was cancer because her aunt had told me over the phone. Her voice creaked through the handset, breaking from exhaustion when she asked for a pink ribbon to be included this time.

But this time there weren’t any balloons or brown bears on the order form. The item line only read “funeral basket or similar.”

The silence of the shop buzzed and blurred around me.

I thought of the first funeral arrangement I ever sold, two matching vases of purple and green flowers to flank an urn of ashes. The manager at the shop where I worked was out for lunch when a blonde woman with rounded edges came in. Her face was streaked with the runoff of old eye makeup, and her hair hung in clots that barely brushed her collapsed shoulders. Walking into the shop seemed to have pushed her over the edge again, and tears ran along the tracks left in the old mascara.

I gave her a book of funeral designs to flip through, but she wouldn’t open it. Purple and green were their wedding colors, she told me as she gasped for air. Their wedding was last year. Didn’t I remember making their wedding flowers last year? She saw me drop them off at the hotel, a purple bridal bouquet with a boutonniere to match.

I didn’t remember her wedding, but I wished I did.

A few weeks ago, a customer called to tell me that the flowers I sent for her were perfect. Her friend had been in the hospital for so long she had run out of things to talk about, and the pink and green daisies and hydrangea seemed to help her relax. She looked at the flowers and smiled and then she was gone, and I could be proud that I helped someone die peacefully.

Did I really help?

It sure doesn’t feel like it on dark January nights when the shop is empty, and the sound of blood in my ears becomes deafening, when I feel the oppressive silent echo as my feet inch closer to an unseen precipice, and the last thing I want to do is walk out into the night to get to my car.

Now that I think about it, I don’t wish I could remember that purple and green wedding. What I really wish is that somehow the flowers mattered. That if I arranged them perfectly enough, with just the right lines and colors and textures, the beauty would wrap you up like a white cloud, and the pain of this dark red world would fade away until it was just a distant impression of a memory, like being born.

Friday, July 15, 2016