The Centennial Flower Ceremony: Meaning, Symbolism and History

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 10/27/2021

By Allison S. Finkelstein, Ph.D., ANC Senior Historian

The white roses used to select the World War I Unknown on top of the casket, October 24, 1921.
(National Archives)

On November 9 and 10, 2021, the public will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to commemorate the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by participating in a special flower ceremony at the Tomb. Rife with meaning, this special event references significant moments and symbols from the Tomb’s history.

What is the flower ceremony? On November 9 and 10, the public will be allowed to approach the Tomb to place a flower in honor of the Unknowns. Aside from formal wreath ceremonies, the public is normally prohibited from walking on the plaza in front of the Tomb. During the Tomb Centennial, however, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) wants the public to be able to connect with the Unknowns at their eternal resting place. More information, and a link to register for the flower ceremony, can be found here.

The idea for the flower ceremony comes from historical research into the selection and burial of the World War I Unknown Soldier a century ago. ANC desired to allude to two specific elements of that event: first, the use of flowers as part of the ceremony to select the Unknown Soldier; and second, the widespread public participation in the 1921 events, including the prevalence of floral tributes presented.

Flowers played a critical role at the selection of the World War I Unknown Soldier in Châlons-sur-Marne, France, on October 24, 1921. The honor of making the selection went to Sergeant Edward F. Younger, a decorated World War I veteran sent from his posting in Germany to support the selection ceremony. To indicate his choice of the Unknown Soldier, Younger placed a spray of white roses upon one of four caskets that contained the remains of unidentified American service members. These roses held deep meaning. They were donated by Brasseur Brulfer, a former member of the Châlons City Council who lost two sons in the war, including one whose remains were never identified—just like the American Unknown being honored that day. Grown in the earth of France, these roses formed a tangible connection between the American Unknown, the unknown dead of France and the French nation itself.

White roses laid at the grave of Edward F. Younger, October 24, 2021, in honor of the centennial of the selection ceremony. (Allison S. Finkelstein)

 After the selection ceremony, the roses were placed on top of the flag-draped casket of the newly designated Unknown Soldier. Various sources, images and motion picture footage indicate that the roses from the selection travelled with the Unknown through many stages of his journey back to the United States, and may have been buried with him inside the Tomb. In the years after 1921, the white rose came to symbolize the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To this day, it is frequently used in commemorations related to the Tomb, such as a recent ceremony at Sgt. Younger’s grave on October 24, 1921, to mark the 100th anniversary of the selection.

As the War Department planned the 1921 ceremonies for the Unknown Soldier, it made a concerted effort to make them accessible to the public, both in France and the United States. People impacted by the war yearned to connect with the Unknown, a universal symbol of the war dead, as a way to mourn and memorialize their own loved ones. During the many public portions of these events, people could honor the Unknown personally, and they often did so through floral tributes.

After the selection ceremony, the French government and citizens presented floral wreaths and other gifts to the Unknown. Such presentations from the French and others continued during the Unknown’s journey to the pier at Le Havre for his departure aboard the USS Olympia. During the arrival ceremony at Le Havre, French schoolchildren even showered the casket of the Unknown with flowers.

Floral tributes almost obscure the casket of the Unknown in the Capitol Rotunda. (Library of Congress)

Once the Unknown Soldier arrived in the United States, the floral tributes continued. From November 9 to the morning of November 11, the Unknown Soldier lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda. During a private ceremony at the Capitol on November 9, government and military leaders presented their floral offerings. Among the many dignitaries was President Warren G. Harding, who brought a wreath of red roses and red ribbon; he also pinned a silver national shield with forty-eight gold stars to a white ribbon made by First Lady Florence Harding. Vice President Calvin Coolidge and Speaker of the House Frederick Huntington Gillette left a wreath of pink roses and snapdragons as a tribute from the Senate and the House of Representatives, and General John J. Pershing presented a wreath of giant pink chrysanthemums.

The public could pay their respects on November 10, and about 90,000 people visited, inundating the rotunda with flowers. Some of the cards attached to these floral wreaths survive. They indicate the deep emotional connection many visitors felt as they honored the Unknown. While many came from groups that conducted small, formal ceremonies in the rotunda, others appear to be from individuals who passed by the casket. Some of these cards included messages to service members without a known grave, left by their families at the Unknown’s casket—perhaps in the hope that it contained their loved one’s remains, or as a symbolic gesture to the Unknown who stood in for that missing body.

The card with the floral tribute presented in memory of Essel M. Maxwell.
(ANC Historical Research Collection)

One card, for example, was dedicated simply “in loving memory of Essel M. Maxwell. Killed in action, unknown” and signed, “Mother.” Maxwell would later be memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France. Whether their beloved service member was lost at sea or in battle, many Americans viewed the selected Unknown as a proxy for the individuals they mourned, and they hoped that the casket they honored with flowers in the rotunda contained the earthly remains of their loved one. Flowers continued to pour in over the next few days. During the funeral service in Memorial Amphitheater, “deep banks” of flowers and wreaths surrounded the stage and filled the amphitheater.

An overheard view of the stage at Memorial Amphitheater, showing the masses of floral tributes presented during the burial of the WWI Unknown. (Library of Congress)

Taking inspiration from these examples, ANC’s centennial flower ceremony evokes the mass public participation in the 1921 events and the use of flowers to honor the war dead. In the United States, this tradition goes back at least to the Civil War and the Decoration Day holiday now known as Memorial Day. Held on the one hundredth anniversary of the exact days that the Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the flower ceremony will enable the public to honor the three Unknowns now buried at the Tomb just as people did when they visited the World War I Unknown Soldier in the Capitol Rotunda in 1921.

Steeped in history, the ceremony will offer a profound opportunity for visitors to memorialize the Unknowns. As they walk across the plaza, they will be enacting a new iteration of a century-long tradition of honoring our nation’s Unknowns with flowers. ANC hopes that this experience will encourage visitors to reflect on the meanings of the Tomb, and the sacrifices made by our military and their families throughout our nation’s history. 

► Click here to learn more about the logistics of the flower ceremony and to make a free reservation.  


Selected Sources Consulted

•  American Graves Registration Service, History of the American Graves Registration Service, Q.M.C. in Europe, Vol. II. Washington, DC: Adjutant General Center, 1976.

•  Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection, Box 12.

•  Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection, Museum Case 1, Scrapbook, “The Unknown Soldier Memorial Tributes 1921.”

•  Associated Press, “Body of ‘The Unknown Soldier’ Arrives Home,” November 9, 1921; “Thousands Mourn Dead in Capitol Rotunda,” November 10, 1921; “River of Humanity Passes Catafalque,” November 10, 1921.

•  Hanson, Neil. Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

•  Lindsey, Bob. The Charles Keating Story. Corry, PA: Artcraft Printing, 1982. (In Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection)

•  Mossman, B.C. and M.W. Stark, The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921-1969. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1991.

•  National Archives, Record Group 117 (Records of the American Battle Monuments Commission), Entry 40, Box 87.

•  National Archives, Record Group 111 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer), Series: Historical Films, ca. 1914-1936, Reel 2.

•  New York Times, “90,000 Pay Honor to our Unknown Lying in State,” November 11, 1921; “Solemn Journey of the Dead,” November 12, 1921.

•  Poole, Robert. On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.

•  Simpson, Kirk Larue. “The Unknown Soldier: Complete Texts of the Associated Press, as Sent from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, November 9, 10 and 11, 1921. Associated Press, December 1921.

•  U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Old Guard Files.