Wednesday, 9 March 2011

When is a Cenotaph not a Cenotaph?

You'll often see or hear war memorials described as cenotaphs. Not all cenotaphs are war memorials, and not all war memorials are cenotaphs.

If you look up the chambers dictionary entry for the word you can see why:

cenotaph noun a tomb-like monument in honour of a person or persons buried elsewhere, especially soldiers killed in war.
ETYMOLOGY: 17c: from French cenotaphe, from Greek kenos empty + taphos tomb.

It was first used by the French in the Seventeenth Century, when it became fashionable for soldiers who had died away from home to be commemorated by their loved ones with an empty tomb.

That feeling is not peculiar to the French from four hundred plus years ago. Humans need a grave or a grave substitute to grieve at for thousands of years.
War memorials serve that purpose now for our war dead; but if you go into any Scottish cemetery you will see inscriptions on family headstones to loved ones, military or civilian, who have died in Canada and Australia, and hundreds of places around the world.

The current use of the word cenotaph for a war memorial comes from 1919. Sir Edward Lutyens was tasked with designing the temporary centrepiece of the 1919 November 11th armistice commemorations. Prime Minister David Lloyd George proposed a catafalque.

[back to Chambers again...
catafalque noun a temporary platform on which a dead king or other important person lies in state, before or during the funeral.
ETYMOLOGY: 17c: French, from Italian catafalco.]

Lutyens suggested instead that the catafalque should be surmounted by an empty sarcophagus; and become a cenotaph.

When it came to 11th November 1919 the temporary cenotaph in Whitehall became such a potent symbol of remembrance that it was immediately proposed that its should become permanent, and become the Empire's War Memorial. Since then it has simply been known as The Cenotaph.

It was so popular that copies were made across the UK and the Empire. Scotland's most well known one is the grand design in Glasgow (see the image at the top of the post), but there are others such as Alexandria, Cardross, Dunfermline, Hamilton, and Larbert.

These are empty tombs in stone - cenotaphs; but such was the popularity of the Whitehall cenotaph that soon the word was being used for different designs of war memorials and you see it being used in newspapers in the 1920s in their war memorial unveiling articles.

In Canada, Australia and New Zealand the word cenotaph is frequently used instead of war memorial and in Scotland it is still quite commonly used too.

Personally I prefer to reserve the word to describe empty-tomb design memorials, but that's just me. Since Lutyens first unveiled his temporary structure in November 1919 the terms cenotaph and war memorial have been synonymous.

**Edit** I'd forgotten about the empty grave to the Forbes Brothers in Pennyfuir Cemetery, Oban when I wrote this. Their parents erected a memorial over an empty grave in Oban. One of their sons was killed at Loos in 1915 and has no known grave. The other died in Flanders in 1918 and has no known grave either. I think you could call this a cenotaphe.

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