Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

When The Roses Bloom Again

There’s a far and distant river
Where the roses are in bloom
A sweetheart who is waiting there for me
And it’s there I pray you take me
I’ve been faithful, don’t forsake me
I’ll be with her when the roses bloom again

 – When The Roses Bloom Again, Woody Guthrie/Jeff Tweedy

The rose is considered to be the queen of flowers, one of the oldest plants cultivated by man. No other plant is as strongly represented in symbolism. In cemetery art, roses are often carved in stones or cast in bronze, representing our love of the departed. Placed on graves by friends and family, the rose is a silent yet powerful message between worlds. 

A single red rose and a white heart in front of a tombstone.
“They are not long, the days of wine and roses.”
Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems

Elysium – Island Of The Blessed

The ancient Greeks associated roses with Elysium, their concept of heaven. It was the home to those judged worthy of divine favor: the heroes of myth, the righteous, the brave, and the blessed. The deserving walked upon rose-covered ground. 

Lush pink roses
“Won’t you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you.”
Richard B. Sheridan, Irish playwright

Because of their beauty and fragrance, roses were consecrated to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, and her Roman counterpart, Venus – specialists in matters of the heart. According to Greek Mythology, all roses were white until a tragic event. Aphrodite fell in love with a mortal named Adonis. When he was killed by a wild boar, Aphrodite raced to her lover’s side in a golden chariot. In her travels, she pricked her foot on a rose thorn. Her blood seeped into the white rose petals and thus, the red rose was born.

red and white rose on a gravestone.
“The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.”
John Boyle O’Reilly, The White Rose

Love, War, And The Death Of A King

Another time. Another place. More roses. Between 1455 and 1485, two competing royal families, members of the House of Plantagenet, fought a series of bloody civil wars for control of the throne of England. The period is known as “Wars of the Roses.” The name comes from the symbols of the two factions: the white rose, representing the House of York, and the red rose, representing the House of Lancaster.

five wet white roses on a tombstone
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”
Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden

During the war’s thirty-year span, power changed hands between the two adversaries until the last king of the House of York, Richard III, died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The Lancastrian, Henry Tudor, was declared King Henry VII. In an effort to reconcile the Lancaster and York houses, Henry married Elizabeth of York, the niece of Richard III. This union ended the Wars of the Roses and gave rise to the Tudor Dynasty, with its most famous member being Henry VIII. It was a turbulent and bloody period in English history, with upwards of fifty-thousand deaths wedded to the symbol of the rose.

Large bronze angel with a red rose in her right hand.
“So wise so young, they say, do never live long.”
William Shakespeare, Richard III

Roses And Religion

The rose continues to be an important symbol in various religious and spiritual traditions. In Christianity, a wreath of thorns and five red petals are symbolic of Jesus Christ’s wounds on the cross. Hence a flower arrangement of red and white roses represents the crucifixion and resurrection.

With the rise of Marian devotion (practices celebrating Mary, Mother of Jesus) in the 12th century, the image of the rose was elevated to a higher status. One of the titles of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church is “Rosa Mystica” or “Mystic Rose.” Cathedrals built during this period often include a rose window dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

single white rose next to the hand of a mourning woman
“Holy Mother of God, pray for us… Spiritual vessel, pray for us… Vessel of honor, pray for us… Mystical rose, pray for us…”
Litany of Loreto (Litany to Our Lady)

In Freemasonry, the rose is used in various ceremonies and rituals. It signifies the dawn, light, rebirth, and silence. It is also an esoteric symbol of Rosicrucianism, a secret worldwide society or brotherhood. This suggests another important aspect of rose symbolism: secrecy.

Roses — Symbols Of Secrecy

The use of roses as a symbol for silence and secrecy dates back to the ancient Greeks. Apprentices of the Sacred Mysteries — secret religious cults of the Greco-Roman world — wore roses, indicating they would not divulge secrets they had learned. The Latin phrase “sub rosa” (“under the rose”) means that anything said in private gatherings was not to be repeated elsewhere. Thus, Roman patricians adorned the ceilings of their banquet rooms with paintings of roses. This also suggested comments made under the influence of wine (“sub vino”) should remain “sub rosa.”

The rose was used in medieval times and later in a similar manner. In Christian symbolism, roses appeared carved on confessionals as a symbol of confidentiality — secrets buried sub rosa.

Little bronze angel with three pink roses in his left hand
“The rose has told
In one simplicity
That never life
Relinquishes a bloom
But to bestow
An ancient confidence.”
Nathalia Crane, Venus Invisible and Other Poems

The Meaning Of Rose Colors

The color, shape, and age of a rose convey a unique and silent message from the giver to the recipient. No other flower represents the circle of life as picturesque as the rose. Its beauty symbolizes the fullness of life, death, and the afterlife. Given as a bud, the rose is a promise — may she bloom in all her splendor until she finally fades away. 

Faded flowers in the hands of a statue
“I’ve never wanted roses to resist wilting more than I do now.
That’s how I know that I want this love to last.”
Najwa Zebian, Sparks of Phoenix

While rose symbolism has lost much of its meaning in modern times, the red rose remains a universal sign of love. Her imagery suggests that true love is stronger than the difficulties of life (thorns). She also represents, courage, immortality, and intensity. A red rosebud signifies beauty, while a thornless red rose means love at first sight. A dozen red roses has become the definitive symbol for true love.

“Some say love, it is a hunger
An endless aching need
I say love, it is a flower
And you, its only seed…”

― Bette Midler, The Rose

Representing purity, innocence, and humility, the white rose also stands for secrecy, reverence, and truth. “I am worthy of you” is her silent message of loyalty. This symbolism forms the basis for brides having white roses in their bridal bouquet.

Each Color Represents A Sentiment

Yellow roses are silent messengers of friendship, joy, and new beginnings. Representing platonic love, they speak of caring and affection.

Three yellow roses in the left hand of a statue.
“If your blooming sometimes so astonishes us,
happy rose, it’s that, petal against petal,
you rest within yourself, inside.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, From Roses

Pink roses are symbols of elegance, refinement, and femininity. Depending on their hue, the meaning changes: A deep pink stands for appreciation and gratitude, while lighter shades suggest admiration, happiness, grace, and gentleness.

Purple roses are my favorites. They symbolize enchantment, desire, royalty, magic, and proceeding with caution. Much like the thornless red rose, purple roses also convey the message of love at first sight.

Orange roses are a fiery symbol of fascination, desire, sensuality, and enthusiasm. They are the perfect choice to express attraction, admiration, and passion.

Rosbush in front of a gravestone
“The roses of old time have filled the well. Is it there that you have been hiding, my sweet love?”
Remy de Gourmont, Philosophic Nights in Paris

Black And Gold

Although some natural roses appear black, they are always a very dark shade of crimson. Black roses are created by using black dye or paint. While they are normally associated with a farewell, black roses also symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth.

The golden rose, visible in the hands of many cemetery angels, represents completeness and perfection — the highest goal of mankind.

Hand of a golden angel
“I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.”
Song of Solomon 2:1

On your next walk through a cemetery, consider taking some roses with you and placing them on the grave of a friend, family member, or even a stranger. Perhaps you will recall the ancient symbolism of the queen of flowers as you send a personal message via the colors that you choose.

For those of you who would like to learn more about the history, varieties, and information on cultivation of roses, I recommend the richly illustrated “Encyclopedia of Roses” by the American Rose Society.

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