PLANTINGS OR FLOWERS ON THE GRAVE
What is the Orthodox objection to the use of plantings or flowers on the grave? (Asked by J. S.)
THE MISHNA, in Berachos 8:6, speaks of the incense which was used around the body of the dead, but there is no mention of flowers or plants on the grave. As a matter of fact, none of the codes has any mention of prohibiting plants or flowers on the grave. There are, of course, discussions about trees in the cemetery, as to whether if cut down their wood may be sold; or whether if they over-arch the graves a Cohen may walk under them. But there is no mention at all in the codes of people planting flowers or shrubs or bringing flowers to the grave. Even the Responsa Literature has nothing about it until about a century ago; and from the sparse discussion of the question in the Responsa, it is evident that the whole objection arose as a reaction to modernism.
As far as I know, the first full recorded responsum on the question was by Eliezer Spiro (“Der Muncaczer”) in his Minchas Eliezer, Vol. IV, Responsum 61. Here he cites, also, the manuscript responsa of a predecessor in Muncacz. From his description it is perfectly clear that putting flowers on the graves was a custom picked up from the environment by certain modern-minded Jews, and it is primarily on this ground that Spiro objects to it. He says that the rabbis issued a decree against this new habit of putting flowers; he cites such a decree in Budapest and he even heard there was such a decree in Vienna before the community came into the hands of Jellinek and Guedemann (who were modern Orthodox). It is natural, therefore, that the objection should first be voiced in Hungary, where modernism and Orthodoxy were organized into national parties, as it were, and opposed each other as such.
Eliezer Spiro now proceeds to search out arguments against the custom. First, he says it is an imitation of Gentile practice and, therefore, forbidden. Also, since rich people can afford to put flowers or plantings on the graves, it violates the rule ( Yore Deah 352:1, based on Moed Katan 27b) that there must be no distinction (in the shrouds) between rich and poor, and this would apply also in this case to the flowers. The rich graves would be decorated; the poor graves would be bare. Another objection would be that the flowers would rapidly fade, and this is a violation of the prohibition against destroying things needlessly (Bal tashchis) . And finally, the fragrance of the flowers brings pleasure or gratification to the onlookers and it is forbidden to have any benefit (Hana’ah) from the body or the grave of the dead.
We may say, however, that since this objection to flowers was instituted by an authoritative rabbi, and since this objection has become widespread now for over a century, it must now be considered an authentic Minhag, which has the power of law in Orthodox life.
It is noteworthy that Greenwald, in his fine compendium, Kol Bo, p. 168, merely says quite mildly, “Yesh limnoah lintos.. ” (“It is advisable to refrain from planting … “) Furthermore, when the Chaplaincy Committee (composed of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Rabbis) was asked whether it is proper to decorate with flowers the graves of military dead on Decoration Day, they answered in the affirmative, on the ground that the true objection is to permanent planting, and as for the flowers, they are not primarily for the Hana’ah of the living, but for the honor of the dead (Kevod ha-mass). See Responsa in Wartime, page 50.