In the 19th century grieving survivors from both sides of the American Civil War were following the ancient practice of laying flowers on soldier’s graves. The last day in May was set aside to honor fallen soldiers, and the day was known as Decoration Day. In ensuing decades, and after World War I, this day of national remembrance bestowed honor upon any American that had died in any war. After World War II the day became known as Memorial Day, and in 1968 the day of recognition was moved to the last Sunday in May. In popular American culture, the special day of commemoration for those who have died in our nation’s service, now remembers and honors all who have lived and died before us.
Generations of families pay tribute to the memory of lost relatives and friends, and visits are made to cemeteries across the nation. Freshly picked garden flowers and roses are laid on loved ones’ graves. Flags decorate the graves of all veterans, and there is an ongoing effort by war historians to locate the graves of forgotten Civil War soldiers. In preparation for Memorial Day visitors, many cemeteries perform an overzealous “spring cleaning” that has become detrimental to this landscape and sacred place.
From the very beginning, the cultivation of roses has been associated with love and beauty. Throughout the ages humankind, has lavished roses on ceremonial ritual, and special occasions, whether solemn or celebratory. From cradle to grave, roses have a prominent place in the monumental events of our lives.
In this post, we discuss how roses connect social history with the “spirit of place.” Victorian sentiment expressed continuation of life through grave-side plantings, and revealed emotional connections or stories concerning the dearly departed through symbolism etched in gravestone markers. Etchings of a broken rose bud might symbolize a life cut short. Joining rosebuds could mean a mother and child died together. Roses planted as graveside memorials were often a treasured family rose. In the Northwest, a rose planted on a mid-to-late 19th century grave might be an Oregon Trail Rose. Many pioneers packed nursery stock in their wagons and stowed rose hips and other seeds in a safe place for the long journey. Upon arrival, the plants and seeds were placed in new gardens, providing both food and an emotional bridge to a life left behind. Death was a frequent visitor in days before penicillin and modern medicine. Beautiful plants and flowers of all kinds were planted graveside by grieving loved ones. Pioneer roses often followed the person that brought the rose out west to their grave, and these hardy roses can outlive generations of a family.
As rose historians, we often visit cemeteries in search of old roses. We are frequently taken by the amazing difference plantings make in the atmosphere of a “final resting place.” One that is filled with roses, flowering shrubs, flowers, and trees, provides sheltering warmth that eloquently communicates the loving care of a community for its departed citizens.
One such rose is the Bethany Rose. Hanson and Lavina Stevens, with seven of their children, crossed the plains to Oregon in 1852. Lavina died only seven years after arriving in Oregon, and Hanson died in 1883. They are buried together near Silverton, Oregon. A rose grows at their gravesite. Family reunions have taken place annually since 1891, and the rose is mentioned in the notes taken during the gatherings. The rose’s story and the family’s story have become intertwined. Family tradition remembers that Lavina brought either rose hips or a cutting with her from their Iowa farm. She would have planted it after they settled on their Donation Land Claim. The family speculates that one of her children planted a cutting at the gravesite after a monument was installed, around 1902. Named after the cemetery in which it grows, the Bethany Rose courageously withstood decades of near annihilation by mowing machines and annual herbicidal applications. Northwest Rose Historians placed the rose on its honor roll of roses, the Northwest Heritage Rose Registry, in 2011. In 2012, a curb was installed to protect the rose from mowers and a plaque was placed telling the story of the rose.
Five generations of Isham descendants have handed down their family rose. James Jefferson Isham, his wife Clarissa Wynn, and their five children, left Illinois in 1852. In Missouri, they joined a wagon train and the westward migration on the Oregon Trail. It is told that the family brought several favorite roses with them. After arriving in Oregon they first settled on the French Prairie of the Willamette Valley, and planted their roses. As the family moved down the Prairie from Champoeg, a fragrant pink rose continued to travel with them and was planted in Wheatland, then Labish Center, and finally the rose was planted on four corners of the family plot in Dayton. Only one of the original four roses still grows in the cemetery, and it is hoped that the three lost roses will be replanted.
Northwest Rose Historians understands the problem of limited time and funds for cemetery upkeep, and the comparative ease of weed whackers and herbicides. However, the possible trade-off for the sense of reverent regard seems inestimable. To those who keep the treasured plantings, from carefully kept urban cemeteries, to more casual naturalized rural settings, we recognize the commitment made to extra care. As a last resort, perhaps the loving plantings can be concentrated in borders or beds, accompanied by small markers to honor the departed loved ones they represent. However, nothing replaces the rose or lilac beside the gravestone that dates it – a devoted tribute to a dear one, and an invitation to linger and reflect.
To ensure the continuing survival of the two roses mentioned in this post, and other pioneer and cemetery roses, cuttings will be planted in the French Prairie Heritage Rose Garden that is under way on the grounds of Antique Powerland Museum Association in Brooks, Oregon. For more information, please contact Northwest Rose Historians through our contact page on this site.