The ladies of Washington National Cathedral's flower guild, girded in purple bib-aprons, set up shop in St. Mary's Chapel for one of their most memorable assignments.
Behind the chapel's ornate brass doors, and beneath its gigantic David and Goliath tapestries, the 60 or so women this week have unpacked, sorted, snipped and pruned 5,000 flowers for the 35 floral arrangements that will adorn former president Ronald Reagan's funeral.
"I feel very honored . . . to have a very tiny hand, a small hand in the preparations," said Penny Vickery, 85, a guild member for almost 20 years. "My mother did flowers for Eisenhower's funeral," she added. "I don't know if you're interested in that. It just shows continuity."
The Reagan family did not stipulate the flowers it wanted at the service, according to guild head Linda Roeckelein. So when she began planning the arrangements Saturday night, she opted for a mostly all-white color scheme.
White "symbolizes purity and the Holy Spirit and resurrection," Roeckelein said. "It just is the obvious choice."
It also was the right choice.
Late Tuesday afternoon, after most of the flowers had already been ordered, a Reagan family representative mentioned to Roeckelein that Nancy Reagan would "probably like all white," recalled Roeckelein. "Believe me, that was a relief."
Adorning such a cavernous place for such a momentous event is a huge undertaking. But the mostly volunteer flower guild seemed more than able to handle it.
On Wednesday morning, a dozen guild members unwrapped the freshly delivered flowers. They deftly sheared off thorns and wilting leaves and cut each stem on the diagonal.
The women then brought the flowers to several long tables, where the location of each arrangement -- and the flowers Roeckelein had selected for it -- was listed on pieces of paper.
"It's like getting ready to cook, making sure you have all the ingredients," Bentley Andrews said as she oversaw the flower distribution.
Roeckelein broke with white for the statues of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and the tomb of Woodrow Wilson. For these, she chose red and white roses and blue hydrangeas. For former presidents, "patriotic colors . . . seemed appropriate," Roeckelein said.
Yesterday, the women moved the flowers to their designated sites in the cathedral to create the arrangements under Roeckelein's supervision.
For many people, flowers are an essential part of a moving worship service. "It's amazing how flowers are used with every important event in our lives," noted Roeckelein. "It's God's gift to us, the beauty of all these flowers. "
This morning, 5,000 of them, lovingly arranged by the flower guild, are ready to do what they were made for. With their fragrant beauty, they will ease the pain of a final farewell.