There is something to be said, after all, for a moose head made of wire and covered solid with lillies of the valley. If you die and get buried, it may as well be beneath such offerings.
And the Smithsonian Institution today opens "A Victorian Extravaganza," where one may see the wire head unobscured by the funerary flowers it is meant to support, and various other gems of Victorian taste (if you worked for the railroad, you could get buried with floral tokens of grief in the shape of a locomotive, etc.) associated with floriculture and horticulture from the 1930s through the rest of the century.
Sometimes the connection between objects displayed and the immemorial craft of Adam, the late curator of Eden, is a trifle stretched.
On the other hand, you can see in the exhibit things rarely to be seen elsewhere. A case of Victorian flower vases, a couple of them somewhat less hideous than the others, is guaranteed to make anybody laugh. And over yonder (all this is shown on the balcony of the Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive on the Mall) is a touching little miniature greenhouse or terrarium, evidently made by loving and not especially gifted hands.
Maybe it was a birthday gift for a wife -- perhaps suffering from some grave industrial disease in a genuine Victorian slum -- and you have little doubt it brightened her final days.
Cast-iron work was a great thing in the Victorian garden, and the museum has assembled a typical, if not especially impressive, collection of chairs and benches, along with some rather pretty (and not all Victorian-looking) gates of bent iron in exuberant Venetian style.
As James Buckler, director of horticulture for the Smithsonian, observed yesterday, he wanted a display to capture the flavor of the last century as reflected in those accessories found in gardens or flower shops of the day.
There are flowers under glass domes, boxes lined with bright seedcatalogue pictures, a manuscript book detailing culture of the newly introduced tropical plants of the time, and a parlor enthusiastically stuffed with Victorian floral arrangements and a little Wardian case in which the optimistic could attempt the culture of cattleyas if they lacked a stove house.
A remarkable collection of small ornamental funnels turns out to be posey hoders. Ladies could insert the stems of heliotrope and verbena and hold the flowers neatly in their hands, sniffing if they should feel a bit faint.
Even people living today may view the Victorian balcony garden without too great a sense of shock. It is tiny, featuring a handsome door opening on to a typical iron railing with Gothic overtones, and on the balcony a few pots of bright flowers, such as geraniums. Victorians would as soon go without underwear as without geraniums.
The exhibit, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily for the indefinite future, has required eight years of planning and collecting, the museum had pointed out.
Beyond doubt, some of the objects are not to be found on every street corner. The cost of the show, Buckler said, was largely borne by the florist industry.
Dracaenas and other greenhouse plants in pots are freely stationed throughout the objects, giving a sense of the opulence, or at least the fullness, admired by Victorians.
The collection of objects is amusing and, to lovers of the Victorian styles, quite interesting. The balcony space precluded any large spacious treatment of Victorian gardens -- a large and living replica is just outdoors -- but visitors might do well to recall that the Victorian Era was not only the age of these flower vases and posey holders and funeral sprays and dried stuff under glass domes, but of important developments too.
Buckler, if he had had the resources, would undoubtly have shown the role of engineering in gardens of that period. Such extravaganzas as the Crystal Palace of 1951 were never seen before or since. Cheap glass, cheap heat, cheap labor and plenty of leisure for the growth of a highly informed amateur class of gardeners all resulted in a golden age of greenhouse culture unknown today.
It was also the age of considerable intellectual power, with "The Origin of Species" appearing in 1859, and remarkable growth in plant societies and careful scrutiny of nature in general. Entirely new classes of plants -- carnivorous, aquatic, Chinese -- began to be developed.
And yet the museum's display of wire moose head for funeral flowers (or, as Buckler suggests, it may be an elk) and the posy holders are so forth may serve almost better than anything else to recapture the surface, at least, of a bursting and uninhabited and utterly confident age.