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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Comments (9)


  • J. S. Reints

    My grandfather was born in 1900 and consequently was too young to serve in WWI. I never talked with him about how it was like to live during this time. Both of his parents were of German descent and I wonder now how the war affected him and his family.

    My father was born in 1927 and was barely old enough to serve. Right after graduation from high school he enlisted in the Navy but the war ended before he saw any action.

    The history of both of these terrible wars has always interested me and I look forward to the present course of instruction.

  • Estelle Agguini

    My mother’s father, William Crowter, fought in World War 1. He was badly injured on the Somme and spent a year convalescing in Cheltenham before being returned to the Front where he was then subjected to mustard gas. He survived this and returned to Liverpool at the end of the war; however, his lungs were horribly damaged by the gas and he lived as an invalid for the remainder of his life until he died in 1929. My mother was born in 1927 and so grew up in the shadow of this damaged life and loss. I’m really interested to find out more about the lives of those men who survived combat and then had to live out the rest of their lives in its aftermath. I’ve recently read a novel by Anna Hope called “Wake”: it’s a fabulous book. I thought about the novel immediately when I saw the photograph above. I’m also a secondary school teacher and I teach about WWI to Year 7 students when we read “Private Peaceful” by Michael Morpurgo. WWI intrigues our 11 and 12 year olds. I’m very much looking forward to this course.

  • Edwin Acke

    I grew up in the neighbourhood of Ypres and I very aware of what happened overthere and at other places during the first worldwar. Therefore it’s very important to learn about history and to visit this sites – thanks to all who are doing so. I really hope history will always be part of education so the world can be a more peacefull place to live.

  • waleed javaid

    A colossal number of soldiers flew from sub-continent numbering in millions, please do justice to their sacrifices.

  • Peter Devine

    The Cenotaph is very noble, very symbolic however the ceremony and annual ritual bares more relevance to the dead from the next war – not the previous. A cruel irony to those who hope that remembrance can bring an end to war.

  • Josette Guédès

    I am a child of war. I was born in France after the Second World War started and I remember the Occupation and also the Liberation. It leaves a legacy of insecurity as you are aware of the transience of what constitutes your day to day life. I remember the adults talking about ‘before the war’ as an idyllic time which had been destroyed for ever. My father was a participant in World War II and my brother later went to fight in Vietnam. Both were traumatised by what they witnessed and changed as human beings within our family as a consequence. I don’t know at first-hand about World War I as I don’t know of any member of my family who was directly involved so this centenary is my opportunity to learn.

  • Sheila Spencer

    I did not know thast Cenotaph mean ’empty tomb’

  • Juliet Hawley

    I shall attend my local Remembrance service this year with a deepened understanding of the great losses suffered by the nations involved, the trauma suffered by survivors and the impact on their families. If only it had been a war to end all wars. Those involved gave everything but later generations don’t heed the lessons.

  • Shanna Sandoval

    I didn´t know this event in the british history. But it is interesting learn a lot of things and events like this.

    Please share more information like this. I really want to learn.