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What is an Eternal Flame?

Updated on December 1, 2016

An eternal flame is a fire that is kept burning perpetually for symbolic or memorial purposes. The practice is believed to have derived from prehistoric times, when men could start fires only with difficulty, yet needed constantly burning fires as protection from wild beasts or cold weather. As fire became a symbol of divinity in the religions of many ancient peoples, eternal flames came to symbolize the continuity of the community or the individual soul. The eternal flame in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, for example, symbolized the continuity of the Roman Empire.

In the 1830's the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina carried an eternal flame symbolizing their tribe on the Trail of Tears, a tragic march on foot to a reservation in Oklahoma. In 1951 a part of that flame was returned for the few Cherokee in North Carolina.

In modern times eternal flames are often used to commemorate dead heroes. Eternal flames burn as memorials to war dead at Arlington National Cemetery in the United States and in Paris, Brussels, and Baghdad. The Eternal Light Peace Memorial at Gettysburg, Pa., honors veterans of the Civil War. In 1963 an eternal flame was lighted at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery.

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