It was the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae that renewed the adoption of the poppy as a tribute to soldiers who had died in conflict. Red poppies had been associated with the war dead since the Napoleonic Wars when a contemporary writer noticed how they grew on the graves of soldiers. Disruption to the soil in Flanders meant that the lime content increased, providing the perfect environment for the poppy to grow.
A wreath of poppies was resting against the modest war memorial in our local churchyard this morning as I took a look round. Gloomy in the mist today, the place was illuminated more by the ochre leaves strewn across the ground than by the sun, an anaemic disc. Aside from the main memorial, a separate headstone dedicated to a young soldier lost in the Great War declared: ‘He fought and endured’. It illustrated how it’s impossible to extricate one’s own loss from this communal grief. And however you have lost loved ones, it’s hard to escape the poignancy of this time of year, joyful red conflicting against the milky sky.
The poppy is not the only flower to symbolise remembrance throughout history. One of the earliest examples is the bed of flowers on which a mother and her two children were buried in the Sahara 8,000 years ago. Poppies, cornflowers and mandrake feature on the walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs while here in the UK, meadowsweet flowers and pollen are often found in Bronze Age graves.In literature, Arviragus, the shepherd in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline pledges to bring specific flowers to adorn Imogen’s grave: ‘The pale primrose, that flower most like thy face; the bluebell, like thy clear veins; and the leaf of eglantine [sweet briar], which is not sweeter than was thy breath; all these will I strew over thee’.
And, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember,’ goes the famous quote by Ophelia in Hamlet as she alludes to her father’s—or even forewarns of her own—death. In days gone by it was common practice to place rosemary on the dead, though the herb has also throughout history featured in bridal wreaths, so its symbolism could equally be joyful! And in a more recent twist, scientific studies of aromatherapy have confirmed that rosemary stimulates memory…so it’s officially an appropriate symbol for remembrance!The Victorians, of course, elevated flower symbolism to an art form, and every emotion had its own specific flower to represent it—a neat way to express oneself under the strict etiquette of the age. Used most commonly to symbolise aspects of romantic love, the remembrance of a lost or unfulfilled love, for example, could be expressed in a bouquet of gardenias (secret love), pink carnations (remembrance), honeysuckle (devoted affection) and pink roses (desire).
For me the rose is a symbol of remembrance for my mother, most especially the delicate Cécile Brünner that she propagated in the gardens of every house we lived in. It’s obvious, I suppose: their delicacy and sweetness take the edge off grief and transport you to happier times. Now I’m rose-mad…I faithfully promised my husband that I would redecorate our bedroom to suit his more alpha-male constitution…but here I am, surrounded by blowsy pink and red rose printed fabric, but, of course, he’s kind enough not to complain. And for my father, it has to be his army cap, still well-preserved after its issue nearly 70-odd years on. Although his episode in the Royal Artillery was relatively brief (during the Second World War), I believe his experiences at El Alamein and elsewhere shaped the rest of his life. Old soldiers never die…
Of course we don’t need symbols to remember…remembrance surely is as natural and spontaneous a process as the beating of our hearts or the inflating of our lungs, and the sum of our memories describes ourselves and our souls. But a symbol validates, comforts and brings something tangible to our memories, whether it’s as universal as the red poppy or as personal as an item of clothing, a special flower, a trinket, a talisman.Or, put simply in the words of J. M. Barrie: ‘God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December’.