How WW1 changed British attitudes to death

The way British society relates to death and dying has changed greatly over the last 100 years, with the First World War having a huge impact on attitudes to bereavement and mourning.

After the 19th century, weaker religious influence and many medical advances fuelled a gradual shift away from the Victorian’s resigned acceptance of death. The First World War hastened the change in attitudes, replacing open expressions of grief with the private mourning and public acts of commemoration we are more familiar with today.

The sheer number of soldiers killed during the war – around three quarter of a million British servicemen – led to an unprecedented and overwhelming grief throughout British society. Historian Adrian Gregory estimates that, from a population of 42 million around 3 million British people lost a close relative and almost everyone in the country was experienced the loss of cousins, friends or neighbours.

In some cases, whole battalions of men from the same town were killed. The Barnsley Chronicle wrote after the battle of the Somme in July 1916: “There is hardly a home that has not experienced some great loss or suffered some poignant sorrow.”

To be able to carry on, “Soldiers and bereaved families largely repressed their emotions and coped in silence,” writes Patrica Jalland in The International Encyclopaedia (1914-1918 Online). In a society that had once mourned openly, private mourning became a coping mechanism.

Public commemoration

Compounding the scale of bereavement was the fact that many of dead were buried where they had fallen.  A policy of ‘non-repatriation of war dead’ was strictly enforced from 1915 onward, so most families were denied the comfort of a funeral for the loved ones they had lost in the war.

Without a body or a grave, the traditional rituals of bereavement were impossible, and people had to find new ways to mourn their dead. Some grief-stricken relatives followed the funeral cortèges of soldiers unknown to them and the idea that one dead soldier could symbolise all those who had died took hold.

In Westminster Abbey, The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior holds an unidentified British soldier. The idea originated with an army chaplain who had seen a battlefield grave marked by a rough cross and the words 'An Unknown British Soldier'. Writing to the Dean of Westminster after the war, he suggested that an unidentified British soldier be buried in Westminster Abbey to represent the hundreds of thousands who died during the First World War.

On the second anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, 11 November 1920, the body of the Unknown Warrior was buried at the west end of the Nave of Westminster Abbey  in a grave containing soil from France and covered by a slab of black Belgian marble.

Community memorials

In 1919, a cenotaph – “empty tomb” – was constructed in London to provide a focus for public mourning. Initially a temporary structure, the cenotaph was so popular with the public that a permanent tomb was built and unveiled in 1920.

Symbolic memorial sites like the cenotaph were constructed around the country and today, according to The British Legion, there are estimated to be 100,000 war memorials in the UK. Nearly every community has at least one memorial dedicated to the local people affected by conflict. And every year on Remembrance Sunday, Britain comes together in an act of commemoration and thanks.

It has been suggested that the public commemoration of the war dead changed traditional family mourning, and possibly marks the start of our society’s struggle to talk openly about death and dying. As a society, we would benefit from a return to a more open attitude to death and dying, but that shouldn’t take away from the acts of public commemoration and expressions of thanks.

This year, Remembrance Sunday falls on the 11th of November. The two-minute silence, held at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, will provide a brief moment in which we can remember the sacrifices so many people made for their country and say thank you.

This year, as in previous years, a donation of £25 will be made to The Royal British Legion or Poppyscotland from every eligible funeral plan sold by Golden Charter or our network of over 3,000 independent funeral directors throughout the UK – view terms here.