“If I Die Young” was recently a #1 hit for The Band Perry. The ballad tells the story of a young woman whose life has been cut short. She asks to be put to rest in a river at dawn. Whether consciously or not, when singer Kimberly Perry wrote the lyrics, she incorporated many images that have been associated with burial customs since ancient times. Many of them have a Pagan significance.
“If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a bed of roses”
The ancient Romans held the rose to be a symbol of Venus; its petals reminded them of a woman’s genitals. Venus the Rose-Goddess was Christianized as Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo. Like many European Pagans who associated the goddess of love with death, the Romans also considered roses a symbol of death. This association was not considered negative; rather, death was seen as a return to the goddess, the source of life. Being taken back by the goddess could lead to rebirth.
In North Africa, rosewater was used for purification. Roses could protect against evil and because of this were commonly placed in the graves of women. When Christianity arose in the Roman Empire, roses and their thorns became symbols of the blood and suffering of Jesus.
In modern flower color lore, red roses symbolize love and respect, white roses symbolize reverence and humility, and light pink roses are the roses of sympathy.
“Sink me in the river at dawn”
In Greek mythology, there were five rivers of the Underworld, each of which the dead crossed. The first was Acheron, the river of woe. The last was Styx, which comes from the Greek word for “hateful” and represents the horror of death. However, the river could also be seen as a positive symbol for washing away sadness. In Hinduism, the Ganges river is sacred. The river itself is a goddess, said to flow from heaven and wash away sins. It has long been a tradition to place the cremated remains of the dead in the Ganges.
“Lord make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother”
The rainbow is a bridge between earth and afterlife in many mythologies. In Norse mythology, the rainbow bridge is called Bifrost and is imagined as “trembling.” Many peoples conceptualized the bridge to heaven as razor-thin, admitting only the good souls. The “pot of gold” at its end is a folkloric descendant of the cauldron where the mother-goddess (Macha in Irish mythology) kept the souls of the dead.
“And I’ll be wearing white when I come into your kingdom”
White is a symbol of purity, the reason why “virgin” brides wear white wedding dresses. The Welsh once buried children with white roses to symbolize purity. In rural Virginia, the custom was to bury children in white clothes; adults were dressed in black.
“So put on your best, boys, and I’ll wear my pearls”
Another symbol for the entrance to heaven (“the pearly gates”). Pearls were also sacred to Aphrodite, ancient Greece’s equivalent of the Roman love goddess Venus. Pearls have also been used to represent purity and virginity. They represent the moon because they look like little moons. The phases of the moon, as it seems to “die” and reappear, are a symbol of life, death and rebirth. An archaic practice was to wear pearls only at night; the sun was thought to damage them, while the moon would energize them.
“The ballad of a dove”
This is likely a reference to the gospel song “Wings of a Dove" written by Bob Ferguson and popularized by Ferlin Husky in 1960. In the Christian Bible, the dove represents the Holy Spirit. To the ancient Greeks, the dove was a symbol of Aphrodite, particularly in her role as the collector of souls at death.
Danielle. (n.d.) “Pearls…Symbolism and Meaning.” http://serapii-kisu.net/essence/symbolism/pearls.php
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. “Charon and the River Styx.” http://www.deathreference.com/Ce-Da/Charon-and-the-River-Styx.html
Rose Magazine. (n.d.) “Rose Folklore.“ http://www.rosemagazine.com/articles07/rose_color_folklore/
Scott, Dawn. (n.d.) “Old Time Burial Customs.” http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vaschs2/burial_customs.htm
Walker, Barbara J. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.
Tye, Timothy. (n.d.) “Along the Banks of the Ganges River.” http://www.asiaexplorers.com/india/ganges_river.htm
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