- Lee Sigler
Raiding the Graveyard
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
These antique bead and wire wreaths are sold incorrectly, and maybe ironically, as wedding wreaths or christening wreaths. Ironically and maybe, humorously, because they are memorial wreaths and were used to decorate coffins and gravestones. The bead and wire sculptures were popular from 1860 thru the early 1900s and came in a variety of shapes – wreaths, crosses, ovals, lozenges, clovers, and more.
The French, English, and to a lesser extent, Germans and Eastern Europeans, have placed permanent memorial wreaths on graves. The French wreaths are pretty – generally purple and white creations with flowers and cherubic ceramic angles. The English and German ones are black with flowers.
I had decorated a guest bedroom wall with a selection of these antique bead and wire sculptures. A French friend walked into the room and gasped audibly, “Why do you have those on your wall?” Later, on a visit to her family in France, she took one of her sons to a graveyard in France to show him the wreaths as they were used. The wreaths were all gone! They were victims of a collectable frenzy and can be found on eBay or at flea markets
As part of French history and culture, the wreaths featured in a classic 1950s movie, “Forbidden Games” (Jeux Interdits). This movie tells a heartwarming and sad story of children in France during WWII. To deal with the war, the children found dead animals and created their own graveyard for the animals. Then they robbed local cemeteries of these wire wreaths for their animal graveyard. They eventually got in trouble with the Catholic Church for doing so.
The French cultural influences can be seen around the world. I was delighted to come across a modern version of these wreaths in a shop doorway in Hue, Vietnam. These are used today in Vietnamese funerals but are made of colored plastic straws cut into short pieces and strung on wire like beads.