Flowers of Remembrance

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In the town where my grandfather who fought and died in WWI lived, there is a square dedicated to his name. When I was a child my father took me every year to the Memorial Day parade there. It would stop at his sign and someone would place a wreath on it. Then we would add a big bouquet of carnations. Someone from our family would bring them, and I can remember being held up to put the flowers in. This is the 100th anniversary of its original dedication, and my brother will be there to do the family honors.

I remember as a child wearing my big straw hat with the ribbon hat hung down the back, watching the band march by with the big drum that boomed so, and the brasses playing a marching tune. Later I brought my own children for the event. One daughter would cover her ears, the booming and shrieking of the drums and brass being too much for her. After the square was decorated, we would walk with the parade down to the beach where flowers were thrown into the water and the band would play “For those in peril on the sea.”

Memorial day was originally established with flowers. At the end of the Civil War the women who were placing flowers on the graves of those fallen at the battle of Shiloh wished not to distinguish between Union and Confederate. The thought was to honor those who died, regardless of their affiliation. In the years since, many traditions have grown up around Memorial Day in the US, with flowers and wreaths remaining the most notable symbols of remembrance.

Once as I was out walking in a neighborhood with many Christmas wreaths decorating the doors, a man came up to me and in a British accent, asked me about them. “In England we put a wreath on the door when people have died,” he said. I chuckled and said no, no one had died here; these were Christmas wreaths. I told him it was customary to lay wreaths on graves in the US however, first displaying them at the funeral itself.

A search on the Internet will reveal much information concerning wreaths and their uses, as well as flowers. Once when I was in charge of purchasing and arranging the flowers to decorate my daughter’s wedding celebration, I bought a variety of blossoms, chrysanthemums among them. My daughter’s husband was Italian and announced that chrysanthemums were only for funerals. I removed them and my bouquets were significantly diminished.

In Italy laurel wreaths are given to graduates of advanced degrees; they are a sign of victory. This goes back to the early Greeks and Romans who used them that way. All over the world flowers too are often given to the graduates, and as well to actors and performers of all kinds at the conclusion of a performance. While they are ephemeral and fade quickly, the flowers we use to honor both the fallen and the victorious are a precious reminder of how important it is to take note of our achievements great or small.

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