It is uncertain whether the remembrance symbolism of the eternal flame has any classical ancestry. It is possibly derived from the idea of a hearth flame for the city, such as the one tended by the vestal virgins in Rome or the altar flame of Delphi.
In 1923 the French journalist Gabriel Boissy suggested the use of an eternal flame in connection with war memorials or shrines to represent remembrance and to symbolise an eternal soul. He took the idea from the sculptor Gregoire Calvet, who had suggested that a flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Paris should be lit every evening (so that the tomb could be kept illuminated day and night).
A philanthropist M. Langlois du Vivray had already offered (in 1921) to pay for such a flame under the Arc de Triomphe, but his offer had been rejected. An eternal flame was installed there on 11 November 1923.
A flame burning in perpetuity is also associated with tombs to unknown soldiers, particularly after the First World War. According to Maria Martins, by 1937 there were tombs with eternal flames in France, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
- Maria Amelia Ferreira Martins, The unknown warrior and the perpetual flame, Portuguese Section of Fidac Auxiliary, Lisbon, 1937
- Charles Vilain, Le soldat inconnu: histoire et culte, preface by Gabriel Boissy, Maurice D'Itartoy, Paris, 1933