Belfast Telegraph

Why we should plant flowers not flags on graves

By Lindy McDowell

The wind rustles through the little copse of trees catching on the chimes which tinkle softly in the early morning sunshine. Flags flap in the sudden breeze - over here a Union Jack and an Ulster flag, over there, another Ulster flag. From where I'm standing I can, in fact, see several.

So where am I? The Field on the Twelfth?

Actually no. I'm at Roselawn - Belfast's main municipal cemetery.

The many and assorted mementoes around me are evidence that fashions change in all things - even in commemorative tribute.

When I was a child, I used to be sent every Saturday with a bunch of flowers to the grave of my granda who'd been killed in an horrific road accident.

The only extravagance then was in the quality of the bouquet (my mother, and it's something I've inherited from her, was a bit Elton John-esque in her love of flowers).

But flowers in the wee marble engraved vase were about the height of it. My granda's tombstone was simple. Others in the same old country graveyard were lavishly ornate.

There were stone slabs so ancient you couldn't make out the words, Celtic crosses and memorials to young men who'd been mown down at the Battle of the Somme. There were the table-top tombs of long-deceased gentry and the black marble of the modern age with the deceased's name engraved upfront and the supplier's name cannily etched along the side. By contrast when I first saw Roselawn in Belfast, what struck me most was the functional uniformity of the place. Gravestones all much of a muchness.

What has changed markedly over the years has not been the tidiness of Roselawn (and that is a credit to its council keepers). It's been the burgeoning range of mementoes and personal items with which the bereaved pay tribute to those they have lost.

One of the striking features of the strange and disturbing case of a woman up in court in recent days confessing to raiding graves in another cemetery in Co Down is the variety of items she was found to have taken.

These included ornamental bumble bees and robins, ceramic planters and windmills.

All of these items will have meant something very personal to the relative or friend who left it there and its loss will measure much more to them than the financial cost of the item.

Some might argue that paraphernalia like wind chimes or dream catchers on a grave is just plain naff.

I don't agree. People need to grieve and grief doesn't come regulation standard. The ornaments and mementoes people leave on graves are as loving and personal as it gets.

And not just on the graves ... in Roselawn commemorative trees where the ashes of the deceased are scattered are also festooned with trinkets, football scarves, chimes, cards and most heart-breaking of all, children's toys.

A few years back there was a bit of a row about all this when council officials tried to banish the ornamentation.

But humanity won through and a common-sense compromise has been reached where the priority is not to laden the tree to the point where its survival is threatened.

But what of the flags? Are we for or against flags in what is, after all, a cemetery for citizens from all sides of the community? (The ones I saw were small - child-sized - and planted in individual graves).

This being Northern Ireland even the flags issue isn't exactly new.

There was another row a few years back over Tricolours and a life-size statue of a balaclava wearing, gun-toting paramilitary (I assume he's still there) in Derry City Cemetery - another mixed burying ground.

It's all a long way from the traditional potted chrysanthemum.

Both city graveyards have a number of paramilitary tombstones festooned with various emblems.

Most of us accept that's the way things are here.

But flags in a graveyard?

Is nothing sacred?

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