When I was growing up in South Carolina, chrysanthemums filled autumn with color before the world turned to winter gray and brown. They were easy to buy in pots. Along with squash, pecans, and red and yellow leaves, chrysanthemums meant clear, cool, sunny days.
So we were startled to be admonished here in France never to bring chrysanthemums as a house gift for a dinner party or apéritif (the French cocktail party with lots of small tasty plates, beer, wine and spirits). You see, chrysanthemums mean death! They are called les fleurs des morts, or the flowers of the dead.
Chrysanthemums mean death because they are traditionally the flowers of choice for cemeteries on Toussaint, or All Saints Day, the first of November. A bit of research explains some of this.
The tradition of placing chrysanthemums on grave sites on Toussaint dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Before that time, family members would place lit candles on the graves of their lost loved ones. People chose chrysanthemums for the simple reason that they were just about the only flowers that bloom around the first of November.
The chrysanthemum custom deepened in the wake of the First World War. On November first, 1919, white chrysanthemums covered the graves of the millions of people who had died in the war. A report at the time, in Le Monde, noted: “There is melancholy in their lack of color, and we are in a time of melancholy.”
So these days, starting in mid October, rafts of large gold, white, fuschia, and yellow tufts of chrysanthemums appear in the big-box grocery stores and at the storefront florist shops. Very tempting to buy a few plants to decorate our house and garden…. But we resisted this year!
We visited an old cemetery in our neighborhood to see where all the mums were going. And to ponder the people and history of Carcassonne.
The cemetery of Saint Vincent
View across to La Cité
Durable memorials for the rest of the year