Human Flower Project

Flowers of Resolution, Christchurch

How do secular societies face a common tragedy? Christchurch, New Zealand, devises a public ceremony, with flowers.


Gathering points along the Avon River in Christchurch,

New Zealand, where residents today made a memorial

“River of Flowers”

Map: Healthy Christchurch

Today Christchurch, New Zealand, marks one year since the deadly earthquake that killed 185 people. A community health group polled the residents to ask how the disaster should be commemorated.

Cantabrians expected another huge gathering a Hagley Park, where a memorial had taken place several weeks after the tragedy. Yet, many residents also wanted to gather in their respective neighborhoods, “to allow communities to be together to commemorate, and to look to the future.” Human lives had been lost, and so were many of the city’s buildings. 100,000 houses were damaged, and 10,000 were entirely demolished either by the quake itself or thereafter. This was a tragedy of place.

The ritual enacted today paid tribute both to individual loss and community despair. People gathered at 15 spots along the Avon River that winds through Christchurch and dropped flowers into the water. The river leads to Pegasus Bay and the South Pacific Ocean.

imageWayne Tait prepared to drop a hydrangea bloom into the river by his former neighborhood in Christchurch. 10,000 homes were demolished during and after last year’s earthquake.

Photo: Anna Turner

Wayne Tait had lived on Keller Street in the Avonside precinct of Christchurch for 49 years, one of many thousands of people who won’t be going home. Instead of joining the central city gathering at the park, he returned to the old neighborhood with a flower.

“It’s where my heart is,” said Tait. “It was one last thing we could do together as a community before we had to move. It was a very touching ceremony.”

Participants were also urged to write out messages of hope and to share two minutes of silence; then monarch butterflies and balloons were released. The script seemed prepared to demonstrate a public letting-go to the larger elements of nature, though of course cut flowers imply sympathetic magic, too—a sacrificial death.

As societies grow more secular, makeshift and repeated ceremonies such as these become increasingly necessary. The old religious rites, anchored in tradition and affirmed by a community of believers, could pay tribute once and for good; individual griefs would resolve (or not) in their own private time. But that’s not the way of things now. It’s understandably harder for us, as a society, to pay our respects with a sense of completion. Often it seems only the next shockwave carries us on, and even then, there’s a craving for “closure,” a sense of something merely covered up rather than finished.

Very much in the therapeutic language of our times, Healthy Christchurch, the organization that polled and organized this memorial, wrote:

The River of Flowers is an opportunity to:

come together as a city through a river of flowers

let go through dropping flowers into the river

hold two minutes of silence to remember those who have died, been injured, or who have lost their homes

write notes of hope and post them on a tree of hope

acknowledge the importance of the river(s) in the life and heritage of the city

give a token of respect back to the river(s)

show the connections between communities - particularly those most affected

celebrate our strength - resilience and supporting one another


Floral memorials flow doen the Avon at Christchurch, Feb. 22, 2012

Photo: Anton Wartmann

Let’s hope that these well-meaning and contrived ceremonies can provide the people of Christchurch with whatever comfort, recognition, or other mysterious elements it takes to survive a tragedy. Polling and performance, it seems, are how we make it through.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/22 at 03:13 PM


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