It was around December of 1964 and I was a new conscript recruit in the Argentine Navy. I had no rank and by the serial number that was assigned to me fellow sailors with slightly older numbers out-ranked me. Thus I was dispatched to a capilla ardiente funeral (open casket) in the Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires. I was there to stand guard by the body of some Argentine Navy non-commissioned officer. I had pulled the short straw, the only one!
December temperatures can go over 40 Celsius in what is the height of the Argentine summer. I stood in attention for 6 hours surrounded by the smell of decaying gladioli and other flowers. If you have an average sense of smell (mine us unusually good) the smell of flowers in a cemetery can never hide the smell of putrefaction inherent to all such mortuaries.
For years I have equated the human body to that of a refrigerator. The food inside a refrigerator will begin to smell soon after the electricity goes or the life of the compressor. Electricity is to that refrigerator what the spark of life is to a human being.
The gladioli at Chacarita have few exceptions. One would be lavender and the other some of my roses. Some roses retain their fragrance long after the blossom has withered.
Of this the Flemish and the Dutch knew something in the 17thcentury and earlier. Painters of the time would add in a corner to their still lifes, a decaying blossom of a rose or a tulip. Sometimes they would include a human skull as a reminder of the ever presence of death.
In the last couple of years while I have still scanned the best roses and other flowers of my garden when they are at a peak I have learned to appreciate how some roses, particularly the Gallicas, keep their shape but turn usually into darker colours. Many are still fragrant.
The rose that to me is the best long after it has reached that perfection of shape, colour and fragrance is Rosa ‘Charles de Mills’. Because it is a Gallica it only blooms once. It is virtually thorn less. Another great feature is that it grows many runners. After a year if I divide them out from the parent plant they produce very active and fast growing copies.
In the death of the flowers the leaves are nice and green. Unlike we who are of a higher order in the scheme of life I must point out that Charles de Mills has us beat. We live and die. Charles de Mills, lives, goes dormant and lives again. With its runners if it is in the right place I will survive for years and never with any whiff of decay.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.