How many times have you passed by a someone’s grave only to stop in pure admiration? Creativity never ends in death. While knowing all the reasons and stories behind each stone is impossible, the privilege is still ours in sight.
As the first day of winter approaches, a familiar feeling cannot escape us: Christmas is coming. Amidst the festive decor and popular images of a certain old man in red and white, greenery of multiple shades of candy canes and treats grace the holiday season. The most familiar is the Christmas tree with cheery presence and shiny and glittery baubles hanging from fresh, sweet and citrusy smelling boughs. Then, there are the wreaths that carolers find on the doors of those lucky to hear the melodic sounds of traditional yore.
Wreaths of the holiday can trace its origins as far back as the time of the Etruscan civilization. Varying from gold, metal, ivy, oak, myrtle, vines, olive leaves and other offerings from nature, these wreaths were used more as jewelry. The word wreath itself comes from Old English for writha meaning band. Just as in the past, arrangements of leaves, flowers, twigs, jewels and ribbons can be seen today. The name could not be more appropriate as these circular fixtures never stray from their traditional appearance too often, though there are some wreaths of a new fashion coming in the shapes of crosses for religious ceremonies and more seasonal shapes such as Christmas trees, doves, bells, reindeers, etc…
Across cultures, wreaths play a role in ceremonial events or used purely as decorations. During Christmas time, assortments of meticulously fashioned evergreens can be found nearly everywhere in the city. Known for its piney scent, this foliage is so resilient that some last throughout the most extreme of winters. Latin terminology even remembers it binomially as sempervirens meaning always green.
During the ancient times, the Greco-Roman world was renowned for wreaths worn as crowns that adorned the victors of the Olympic games. Forms of laurel and olive leaves were intricately woven together as they were the most popular. Steeped in Greek myth, the laurel is synonymous with the god Apollo, who rules over life and light.
Nowadays, the arrival of the wreath visits town as early as Halloween and Thanksgiving. People buy harvest wreaths along with cornucopias and scarecrows as a part of the fall festivities. In celebration of a great harvest, Ancient Greece saw the weaving of rich blonde straw, abundant fruit and nuts woven in red and white wool as an amulet to guard against famine and a prayer for a fulfilling year of surplus in the next. The harvest wreaths then remained on the door for the whole year.
Something less familiar in name but more in sight is the Advent wreath. In Christianity, these wreaths tell of the return of Jesus Christ and its origins stem from 16th century Lutherans in Germany. Made of evergreens, the wreath lays horizontally with four candles on top and a fifth candle at the center. Red ribbons lay on top with pinecones or other arrangements are possible. The four candles are lighted on each Advent Sunday. The greenery represents everlasting life and hope for a new spring while holly can also be a part of the mixture as a sign of the crown of thorns Christ wore due to its prickly shape. The bright red berries of the holly means the blood that Christ shed.
In a cemetery setting, wreaths remain the funerary rite that is just as regular as bouquets of flowers and pictures. Here, wreaths represent the passing of a loved one and the hope of life in the next. Earlier this December, Oakwood Cemetery was honored in being a part of Wreaths Across America. This tradition consists of laying the circles of evergreen on the graves of the fallen soldiers in the Field of Honor as well as other parts of the cemetery. These men were remembered for the great service they devoted to their country while family members and fellow soldiers and veterans saluted them.
This year, Oakwood Cemetery placed over 400 wreaths on the graves as family members, fellow soldiers and veterans saluted the men for their great service and devotion to their country. A great thanks goes out to Sue Purkis, the Volunteer Coordinator of the event. The cemetery has been involved in Wreaths Across America for the past four years, with numbers of volunteers and donations growing each year. While this year’s event has passed, the hope for next December is for more wreaths and community involvement. But another hope is also for people to remember the men and women whose bravery is the most wonderful gift to their country and that their spirit lives on.
It is unbelievable how much symbolism there is in a wreath. But that is what makes it simply wonderful. In another time, displaying a wreath in one’s home meant waiting for spring to arrive and Christ to rise. It also held more meanings such as wishes for a good harvest and a somber message of remembrance for the dead. While the holiday continues its catching glow of joy and thankfulness, one thing cannot be forgotten. A new year is around the bend with surprising changes and wonderment, but it is very much rooted in fond moments from long ago.
Remember some years ago in middle school when you stood up with the class and the pledge of allegiance slipped easily out of your mouth as your hand found the left side by your heart? People say the purpose was to salute a flag, a piece of cloth representing a country. It is a piece of living history that never dies but transcends generations. In times of casualties, the flag flies half mast to signify a death. Great loss reverberates throughout the nation. When a soldier dies far away at war, his family receives the flag after a ceremonial show of transforming it into a triangle as the crowd is reminded that his loss is remembered through his heroic deeds. But what is the significance of a triangular flag? The reasoning for this ceremony lays in obscurity, although several ideas come to mind.
During the Revolutionary War, General Washington and his company wore tricorn hats with brimmed sides and three corners turned up. Another story finds its origin at sea. As early as 1824, a ship captain from New England was gifted with a flag as a show of reverence to the captain and a wish for safe voyage. As a way to consecrate the flag, it was blessed in the name of the Christian Trinity by a high power of the church and folded into a triangle. As the Church invoked the Our Father prayer, the small congregation uttered, “glory” in return. The captain flew the flag high and told the crew, “I’ll call her old glory.” It is said that perhaps later on he folded the flag in a triangle when he presented a replica to the Ohio 6th Infantry who adopted “Old Glory” as their flag.
The “Write a Letter to a Soldier” program created by Oakwood Cemetery’s Summer Intern, Callaway King. Letters are sent to soldiers serving overseas.
So much symbolism and patriotism encompass the American flag. What is more unique is that folding it into a triangle is not a requirement by the United States Flag Code. It can be stored away so long as it is done in a manner that is appropriate and respectful without inflicting damage to the cloth.
On Veteran’s Day, Oakwood Cemetery found a number of guests attending the Flag Retirement Ceremony. The purpose honored the United States flag as it weathers with age and wear from usage. However, age doesn’t mean throwing things away. Rather, Old Glory is retired with decorum and regard.
Flags adorning the Field of Honor
To start the ceremony, the flag is parted into several pieces. This makes for an easier incineration as the flag rests in fire, a symbol of rebirth. Ceasing to be a flag, the material becomes individual stripes of red and white, representing the 13 colonies. The blue background and white stars remain intact to show the the union’s will to never separate.
A speech called “Remember Me?” was read aloud as people returned to nostalgia about Old Glory and what patriotism meant. As the speech came to a close, the names of the colonies rang out as each fragment of cloth found the fire. Lastly, the blue field of white stars ended the retirement of the flag. Veterans and active military members carried triangular flags and placed them in the fire. Other members of the audience were also asked to indulge in the honor.
Interns Sandy Nguyen and Callaway King performing the flag retirement ceremony. King holds strips of the flag and reads the names of the original 13 colonies while Nguyen places each piece into the fire.
Grand salutes made way to remember those who fought wars and never came home. It also honored those who lived to see a brighter day with the end of war and continued their lives.
Some cemeteries display blooming gardens while others hold cinema nights. But no one has Bruce Miller. Oakwood Cemetery boasts the rights to a great historian whose dedication to little old Raleigh is nothing short of a blessing. Earning his tenure as a most knowledgeable guide to all things Oakwood Cemetery, it was only fitting to etch his memory and name on a street. Miller’s Magnolia Walk houses one of the oldest and famous patrons whose history the eponymous figure knows all too well. Here lies Sophia Patridge, the founder of the Confederate Cemetery at Oakwood, John Haywood, the first Treasurer and Raleigh’s first Intendant of Police (Mayor), and Ellen Mordecai, the author of Gleanings from Long Ago of the Mordecai family whose plantation bears a short walk a few blocks away.
On a Friday afternoon, Miller accompanied the Raleigh Governor’s Mansion docents through the maze of streets and stones. From far away, one would assume that this tour is rather quiet and normal. But Miller’s demeanor and presence turned even the most intriguing chit chat to a halt with his abundance of never ending wisdom. A true cognoscenti of his time, he never fails to enlighten the crowd with facts intertwined with lighthearted humor. If there is such a thing as a walking encyclopedia then he is it!
As the storyteller introduces each patron and their tale, one cannot help but wonder how this man can remember so much. The theme of the day revolved around the governors and state officials of Raleigh. From Robert Watson Winston to Charles Brantley Aycock, Miller’s genteel Southern introduction brings the past a bit closer to the present. At certain points, he goes on a first name basis with patrons. One can only surmise that given the chance, they would return the favor and tell their own stories about the man himself.
Throwing in a few unrelated tombs and their origins, the crowd hung on his every word as curiosity peaked. As revolutions around the former first park of Raleigh were made, the tour ended with the trademark humble Bruce Miller philosophy as capturing the “spirit of the place” and making a small contribution to a lively place. Miller is no stranger to the plenty of tours and even lectures at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Oakwood to Oakwood which can be purchased at Oakwood Cemetery for $15. A huge investment of time and research was spent on learning and collecting facts and anecdotes about the people and through his generosity, all proceeds go to the cemetery. The book provides an insight on past figures whose influence on the neighborhood remains a great feat to this day. As Miller puts it, the book kindly depicts, “The lives and homes of people who lived in or developed Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood — and stayed.”
Now that Halloween is over, it seems that the only way to go is Thanksgiving. Actually, there is a holiday at the beginning of November. November 1st is the start of All Saints Day which for most people remains in an unfamiliar territory. Call it All Hallows, Day of All the Saints, Solemnity of All Saints or Feast of All Saints, this multinominal holiday honors saints who reached Heaven. Primarily focusing on unknown saints, the origin of this day began with Pope Boniface IV collecting the bones of saints and other remnants in order to rebury them in the Pantheon in Rome on May 13 in 609 AD. Eventually, Christians came to recognize the numerous martyrs and their lives on the anniversaries of their deaths. As the years flew by, canonization of the saints grew in great numbers. Pope Gregory IV officially put a stake on the November 1st as the day of commemoration.
The practice now extends to remembering members of a congregation. Names of churchgoers are read out loud during Mass on All Saints Day as their loved ones remember them. The day and its celebrations vary throughout the world. In some countries, lighting candles by graves marks the remembrance while laying flowers and wreaths is another way. Pope Boniface IV also takes credit for All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.
In America, Halloween’s orange and black gloss and candy overshadows this day as children trick or treat for the colorfully wrapped squares and circles. Haunted houses find transient tenants for the night and delightfully scarified thrill seekers. The night ends with ghost tours and costume contests. But the night ends in a much simpler way at Oakwood. Driving along the streets inside, handmade vibrant orange ribbons tied into luminous bows adorn several graves in honor of All Saints Day. So much solace can be found in the sacred day as Robin Simonton, Executive Director of Oakwood Cemetery explains the particulars. Typically held in churches, Oakwood finds that exception in their Mausoleum where the event is held. This year, the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church came by as the Oakwood Community gathered to remember the lives of the people as their names are read aloud.
“It is a somber remembrance of those we lost. The whole thing is a big community event.”