Rosemary for Remembrance

Rosemary for Remembrance

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance", said tragic Ophelia in Shakespeare's English masterpiece Hamlet. This understated, intelligent and very traditional echo of her words was spotted in the beautiful and historic Cotswold's town of Chipping Campden today.

 The association of rosemary with remembrance, and with funerals, mourning or celebrations, predates the bard’s play.

Rosemary has a deep-seated connection with the passing of loved ones that goes back millennia. Since pre-historic times, our ancestors have used rosemary in burial rites. We know that, as far back as 1000BC, the ancient Egyptians were using rosemary, along with other essential oils, to embalm the bodies of their dead.  

There’s evidence that Romans carried rosemary with them during funeral processions and then left the sprigs with the body. In the early sixteenth century, English statesman and politician, Sir Thomas More, wrote of rosemary: “Whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds.” Partly, we think, it’s because, as an evergreen plant, rosemary is associated with eternal life.

And that brings us to another reason rosemary is so suitable for funerals – the idea that rosemary represents eternal love as well as eternal life. Again from the sixteenth century, the celebrated Doctor of Divinity, Roger Hacket, said in his ‘fruitful sermon on marriage’: “Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart.”

Whether because of its evocative smell, the old wives’ tales of medicinal properties or the symbolism of eternal life and love, rosemary has played a long and honourable part in our commemoration of the dead.