Was an anchor of roses significant in Canadian Victorian funerals?
January 16, 2018 7:19 AM   Subscribe

I’ve just started reading L. M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon for the first time, which is set on Prince Edward Island in about 1890 or so but published in 1923. One detail caught my attention and it seemed significant, but I can’t tell why. Emily’s uncle brought a “great anchor of white roses” to place at the head of her father’s coffin. Was there a significance to it being in the shape of an anchor or was this a lyrical touch by the author?

Here’s the passage in question:
Her father’s coffin stood in the centre of the small room which had been a bedroom. It was heaped with flowers—the Murrays had done the proper thing in that as in all else. The great anchor of white roses Uncle Wallace had brought stood up aggressively on the small table at the head.
A note for people who haven’t read the book: Uncle Wallace has not been presented as a sympathetic character.

This website says that an “anchor might denote maritime connections in life” but Emily’s father was a journalist before he contracted tuberculosis, with no obvious connection to the sea, other than living on an island.

It seems to me that an anchor of roses would have a special significance on an island in Victorian Canada, but I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer why Uncle Wallace placed a “great anchor of roses” so prominently by the coffin of Emily’s father. Considering how the character is presented so far it feels like some Victorian insult delivered in floral form. Can someone more knowledgeable in the funeral customs of Victorian Prince Edward Island figure out the meaning of it? Or say that this is simply a lyrical description by Montgomery?
posted by Kattullus to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
The anchor is an ancient Christian symbol and particularly appropriate for a funeral because of its reference to Hebrews 6:19-20: "We have this hope [in Christ] as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf." This verse speaks specifically to the idea that Christ has already entered heaven "behind the curtain" or sometimes rendered "beyond the veil" and that Christians are "anchored" to hope that they will enter there as well.
posted by Jahaza at 7:26 AM on January 16 [9 favorites]


In funerary symbolism, an anchor is also used as a religious metaphor for the "anchoring" influence of Christ, e.g. strength of faith or steadfast hope. Living on a small island would be enough of a maritime connection for the family to favor the anchor over any of the other dozen visual metaphors for the same basic idea.
posted by desuetude at 7:28 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Also, of course, Uncle Wallace's contribution is "aggressively displayed" because the distinctive shape of the anchor is calling attention to itself. I haven't read the book, but from this passage I would infer that Uncle Wallace was not only upstaging the rest of the flowers a bit, but was doing so in perhaps an overly pious way.
posted by desuetude at 7:35 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


I haven't read the book so I may be missing something, but is it possible that "anchor" isn't literal here, and rather means something more like "focal point" or "keystone"?
posted by brentajones at 7:41 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Not particular to Victorian Atlantic Canada, but in the common Christian symbolism for "faith, hope, and charity", the cross symbolizes faith, the anchor hope, and the heart charity or love.
posted by Gnella at 7:53 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Jahaza: The anchor is an ancient Christian symbol and particularly appropriate for a funeral because of its reference to Hebrews 6:19-20: "We have this hope [in Christ] as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf." This verse speaks specifically to the idea that Christ has already entered heaven "behind the curtain" or sometimes rendered "beyond the veil" and that Christians are "anchored" to hope that they will enter there as well.

That’s really interesting, Jaharza, because Emily’s father references the same passage when discussing his impending death with his daughter, saying that he’ll pass behind the curtain. Since there’s been much made of Emily following the beliefs espoused by her father, the anchor does indeed feel significant, if not in the way that I thought it might be.
posted by Kattullus at 8:15 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I think floral anchors at funerals (and other elaborate floral wirework) was a custom popular in the 1880s and 1890s throughout all of North America, and not all distinctive to PEI. E.g.
Funeral reformers were not able to do much about funeral extravagance, but they did bring to the American funeral a new spirit of good cheer. In the late 1880s the gloomy spirit of the seventeenth-century best-seller, Michael Wiggleworth’s Day of Doom, had been largely uprooted. Threats of hell had given way to promises of heaven. Nowhere was this new optimism more apparent than in the flower vogue of the 1880s and 1890s. Black remained the appropriate color for mourning, but reds, yellows, blues, and oranges now flooded the funeral with gaiety. The coming out party for this new style was the famous “flower funeral” of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher in 1887. Certain that death was a promotion, as Beecher had affirmed, followers adorned his front door with a floral basket rather than the traditional black crape, and his church, too, was laden with flowers. Soon flowers were a funerary rage. Funeral parlors, churches, and homes across the country were weighed down at death with extravagant floral set pieces shaped like wreaths, crosses, anchors, harps, lambs, and broken columns. One favorite decoration, called Faith, Hope, and Charity, incorporated an anchor, a cross, and a heart in tribute to the deceased and to the new spirit of sweetness and light. In these ways the Victorians ushered in a new era in American ritualization—an era rich in pomp, circumstance, and good cheer that would last until the 1960s.
The only Canadian example I can find is from Ontario in 1885.

My guess is that this is a conscious anachronism on Montgomery's part and is part of how she's trying to make her story set 30 years in the past more convincing. Like having cassette boomboxes in a movie set in the late 1980s for us, I guess.
posted by crazy with stars at 8:33 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


I think LMM is subtly showing another "Murray-like" trait—Uncle Wallace sending an ostentatious, religiously-significant floral arrangement, which has the added bonus of being something Emily's father would probably have hated.
posted by elphaba at 8:57 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


(As a lifelong Catholic, and a resident of Rhode Island, I can't believe that I never put this together before. Awesome lesson for me!)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:55 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


The Christian bit is interesting and something I didn't know about, but the anchor was a widely used symbol in Victorian decorative arts (and tattoos) and often simply represented the idea of home.
posted by Miko at 9:56 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


wenestvedt: (As a lifelong Catholic, and a resident of Rhode Island, I can't believe that I never put this together before. Awesome lesson for me!)

Oh good grief... I lived in Providence for five years and never put it together either.
posted by Kattullus at 12:21 PM on January 16


This isn't the only anchor of flowers in an LMM book. Anne of Ingleside has a chapter that describes the funeral of a man who is considered important in his community but privately loathed by almost everyone (and very publicly excoriated by his former sister-in-law during the funeral). Verbatim:

"The air was cloyed with the perfume of the flowers that banked the coffin . . . for Peter Kirk, who had never known flowers existed. His lodge had sent a wreath, the church had sent one, the Conservative Association had sent one, the school trustees had sent one, the Cheese Board had sent one. His one, long-alienated son had sent nothing, but the Kirk clan at large had sent a huge anchor of white roses with 'Harbour At Last' in red rosebuds across it, and there was one from Olivia herself . . . a pillow of calla-lilies. Camilla Blake's face twitched as she looked at it and Anne remembered that she had once heard Camilla say that she had been at Kirkwynd soon after Peter's second marriage when Peter had fired out of the window a potted calla-lily which the bride had brought with her. He wasn't, so he said, going to have his house cluttered up with weeds.

"Olivia had apparently taken it very coolly and there had been no more calla-lilies at Kirkwynd. Could it be possible that Olivia . . . but Anne looked at Mrs. Kirk's placid face and dismissed the suspicion. After all, it was generally the florist who suggested the flowers."

I also remember Anne saying in another book that she wouldn't have a "floral bell, or a bower to stand in" at her wedding, because she hated stiff flower arrangements--considered the bell or bower as bad as "anchors and harps and 'floral pillows' at funerals."

Taken as a whole, I'd say: 1) the anchor of flowers was pretty common; 2) it symbolized heaven and was meant to be comforting; 3) L. M. Montgomery really hated the darn things.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:24 PM on January 16 [8 favorites]


For the curious there's an example of such a Victorian anchor (this one from Indiana) in a photograph on this blog: http://alandofdeepestshade.blogspot.com/2010/04/victorian-funeral-flower-shrines.html
posted by crazy with stars at 12:30 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


desuetude: "I haven't read the book, but from this passage I would infer that Uncle Wallace was not only upstaging the rest of the flowers a bit, but was doing so in perhaps an overly pious way."

I have, though not for some years, and to my recollection this interpretation is extremely in line with Uncle Wallace's characterization. That side of the family considered Emily's father to be Not Quite Respectable, IIRC, and there's a lot of them wanting to haul her into line to do things The Proper Way in the first book. So a floral display that is etiquette-book appropriate but also ostentatious, overtly pious, and not to the taste of the deceased or his primary mourner (Emily) is very much the subtext I think the author was going for.
posted by oblique red at 12:57 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Off topic, but can I just say that the very fact that this random question not only exists but, when posted, elicits a thread full of interesting, thoughtful literary conjecture and well-reasoned responses supported by linked evidence and passages is why I LOVE AskMe? Honestly, it's just so great.
posted by alleycat01 at 1:49 PM on January 16 [18 favorites]


> Off topic, but can I just say that the very fact that this random question not only exists but, when posted, elicits a thread full of interesting, thoughtful literary conjecture and well-reasoned responses supported by linked evidence and passages is why I LOVE AskMe? Honestly, it's just so great.

Bonus fun fact for you, the term for someone interested in visiting cemeteries, funerary traditions, gravestones, epitaphs, etc. is a "taphophile."

/taphophile

posted by desuetude at 2:14 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Oh, whoa. I just realized that the "floral bell" line wasn't from L.M. Montgomery after all--it was from Susan Coolidge's book Clover.

"'Sha'n't you have a floral bell, or a bower to stand in, or something of that kind?' ventured Clover, timidly.

'Indeed I shall not,' replied Katy. 'I particularly dislike floral bells and bowers. They are next worst to anchors and harps and 'floral pillows' and all the rest of the dreadful things that they have at funerals. No, we will have plenty of fresh flowers, but not in stiff arrangements. I want it all to seem easy and to be easy.'"

Coolidge (Sarah Chauncey Woolsey) was an American, born in Ohio but mostly residing in New England, and the book in question was published in 1888, a good 20 years before any of Montgomery's novels were published and more than 35 before the Emily of New Moon reference. So those stiff funerary arrangements--including the anchor--were long-standing but clearly not to everyone's taste. Based on Montgomery's actual references to them, it's pretty easy to see why I'd misattribute.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:45 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


You can still get anchor floral arrangements for funerals, btw, and every now and then you do see them or other similar old-fashioned pieces on the stands -- wreaths are most common but there are others that pop up. And there's actually a whole realm of modern flower arrangements for funerals in the same technique and style, but now featuring sports teams and other things. You can check out the tackiness for yourself.

Some of them are pretty but for the most part they are monstrously tacky, so you can see what Uncle Wallace was going for.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:32 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


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