June 23, 2021

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They’ve written hundreds of cards for Covid victims. Here’s what America’s florists have learned about grief

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“The majority of people, believe it or not, are at a loss for words,” he explained.

There was one phrase, though, that he most frequently recommended for the tiny floral enclosure cards — “Our thoughts and prayers are with you during these difficult times.”

Since March 2020, when the malevolent coronavirus first tore through New York City, he has added two new words.

“Now it has become ‘Our thoughts are with you during these difficult and unusual times.’ That’s the way that we’ve acknowledged what’s been going on around us,” he said.

Spetsieris’ flower shop is in Queens, New York, a borough that recorded nearly 10,000 deaths from Covid-19, according to the NYC Department of Health.
“Two blocks away, Elmhurst Hospital was the epicenter. We were getting calls for sympathy arrangements. They would ask us, ‘What should we say?’ There really are no magic words to this. How do you put in context that this death was caused by a virus?” he added.

The calls almost always go the same way. A customer rings with a funeral order. They request the blooms the person had liked the most. The colors they’d prefer. Usually, Spetsieris said, that’s pastels and pinks for ladies. Stronger, bolder reds and blues for men. Costs are discussed. Arrangements are finalized. The card, with some help, is written.

Florist George Spetsieris and team at his shop, Ultima Florals, in Queens, New York.
Since January 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic has claimed the lives of at least 579,410 Americans.

As demand for funerals has risen across the nation, and mourners have tried to find ways to express their sorrow, America’s florists have found themselves on the frontlines of the nation’s grief.

The Society of American Florists, a national trade association, told CNN that the pandemic has been “a challenging time,” but that florists had “built on the experience and the skills that they have to really step up.”

“With the isolation and separation brought on by COVID, which disrupted so many gathering rituals, people turned to flowers in a big way,” it said.

Arranging funeral flowers for your own family

Flower Basket, Christine Martinez's flower shop in Gallup, New Mexico.
In the town of Gallup, New Mexico, Christine Martinez has been working seven days a week at to keep up with demand. Gallup’s population, which is almost half Native American, has been devastated by the pandemic.

“It’s just pretty much been a lot of death. We have been doing like three to five funerals a day and not much of anything else. We’re probably 10 times busier than what we usually are just because of this horrible disease,” Martinez said.

“It’s like the whole family gets hit with the virus and they lose two or three people. Sometimes the parents, the kids. To see that loss is amazingly sad and difficult. Emotionally, it’s a lot. Sometimes I go out on deliveries, and I’ll just break down and cry,” she added.

Floral designer Michael Gordon, a member of the Navajo Nation who works with Martinez, estimates that he’s lost 35 members of his family to the pandemic.

“It’s to the point where I can’t even cry no more, because to me it’s normal losing loved ones,” he said.

Gordon has made many arrangements for people he knows.

“I’ve done quite a bit of flowers for family and relatives and friends. It’s emotional doing flowers for them. I put all I can to put in these arrangements. I want to make it a little more extra special, try to put it together, how I remembered them. It’s hard,” he added.

The most important part of any arrangement

A pair of floral boxing gloves made for a funeral arrangement by florist Alfred Samaniego.
In Santa Fe Springs, Los Angeles, Alfred Samaniego said the demand for funeral flowers had increased by “50%, at least,” over the last year, as pandemic deaths skyrocketed. At one point, things got so bad in LA County that an emergency order was placed suspending permit conditions that limit the number of cremations, due to a “backlog” caused by the pandemic.

Samaniego’s business had always specialized in funerals. But even he felt the toll of the grief all around him.

“Our last year in business in the floral industry has been really tough, not just for me, but florists across the nation, across the world. We were getting about 50 to 60 funerals a week,” he said.

“There were funeral homes that had over 20 refrigerated containers outside that look like shipping yards. You’re like, ‘This is real?'” he added.

With wholesale markets shuttered, Samaniego sourced flowers from gas stations, supermarkets and neighbors’ yards to provide for his clients.

On one occasion, after a client said his late mother had loved camellias, he found himself parked in a stranger’s driveway.

“I found a home up the street from my shop and I see a gorgeous bush of camellias. So I just parked there until someone came home. A gentleman comes up, he’s a construction worker. And I told him “Sir I have a family’s request. Their mother needs camellias on her casket and I can’t find any camellias anywhere. Do you mind if I cut some? He said, ‘Go ahead, cut as much as you want.’ so I was able to fulfill that last wish for the family,” Samaniego said.

Samaniego’s business specializes in custom funeral pieces. In the past he’s made floral guitars, a basketball hoop, even an ornate pair of petal-encrusted boxing gloves for his clients.

“I grieve with families, I listen to their stories and that’s what makes me a great designer in this industry, because I’m creating their vision of their loved one, their mother, their father, what they liked in life,” he said.

But no matter how ornate the arrangement, Samaniego says the most important part of his work is helping families to find the words for their card. Those, he said, mean the most to people navigating their grief at a funeral and in the long years to come.

“I ask the question.’Who was he to you? Who is she to you?’ Because the most important piece of the whole entire arrangement is that little card. It means that their loved one was loved by somebody. And that’s the most important part of the whole arrangement,” he said.

2021-05-08 09:51:04

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