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Remembrance Sunday: how World War 1 changed the way we mourn the dead


This Sunday is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, when ceremonies at the Cenotaph in London and war memorials around the country mourn those who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts. Here, The Open University’s Annika Mombauer discusses the origins of these ceremonies in World War 1. The article is taken from her free online course “Trauma and Memory,” which started on Monday.

The unveiling of the Cenotaph in London in 1920

Outside of wartime, mourning would usually take place at burial sites and focus on the body of the deceased, but during the war this was frequently impossible.

The bodies of many soldiers who died at the front could not be identified due to the horrific injuries they had sustained. During periods of intense fighting, it was not always possible for bodies to be gathered up and given a proper burial, and those soldiers who could be identified were usually buried in makeshift graves near where they had fallen. Many were never found.

Bereaved relatives and loved ones on the home front were therefore often deprived of a body or a grave at which they could mourn, and where graves existed, they were often too far away to visit. This hindered closure, and often intensified personal trauma.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

As a result, new funerary customs and mourning practices developed. Some bereaved families would adopt other bodies as a focus of their mourning, following the funeral cortèges of soldiers unknown to them.

This notion that one dead soldier could symbolise all those who had died gave rise to the Tombs of the Unknown Soldier in London and Paris, both of which were established in 1920.

In London, the body of an unidentified soldier, who had initially been buried on the Western Front, was entombed at Westminster Abbey. In Paris, the same was done at the Arc de Triomphe.

The Cenotaph – or “empty tomb”

In London, a cenotaph – which literally means “empty tomb” – was also established in 1919. This was initially a temporary structure, but due to its popularity, a permanent tomb was built and unveiled in 1920.

Symbolically significant sites such as these, along with countless war memorials across the belligerent countries, proved popular focal points for mourning and continue to serve as commemorative sites to this day.

You can join “Trauma and Memory” until 23 November. It’s one of five courses on FutureLearn commemorating the centenary of World War 1 – view them all in our “History” category.

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