The holiday Halloween evolved from pre-Christian traditions as well as the Christian days for remembrance, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is today. Remembrance in general, and mourning in particular, were a bit more active in the medieval era than the present but still it is interesting how reflection was transformed into celebration! Mourning, as both a state of mind and an act, is of course universal, transcending time and place, but there are many distinctive and divergent mourning customs, and since its expressions seem to be in season now (as reflected by the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Morning Attire and The Art of Mourning at the new Morbid Anatomy Museum, as well as the exhibition from a few years ago at the Massachusetts Historical Society, The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, which you can still view online), I thought I would examine just one: the use of chrysanthemums. While the omnipresent autumn plants seems to sit on every stoop and front porch throughout New England, they are used to decorate graves in France and other countries on the European continent and elsewhere (predominately but not always yellow mums in France, white mums are traditional funereal emblems in China), and are as much a natural symbol for mourning as the weeping willow was in nineteenth-century America. You won’t see any mums on the Met’s dresses or the Anglo-American jewelry in the MHS exhibition, but they figure very prominently in French memorial depictions from the same era–and after.
“The Cemetery of Père Lachaise,” after John James Chalon, 1822; Emile Friant, La Toussaint, 1888, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, Daniel Hernandez cover for Figaro illustré, 1896, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Adolf de Meyer, The Shadows on the Wall (“Chyrsanthemums”), 1906, Silver Print Photograph, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a French cemetery in November 2013, NBC News.