Throughout history, humans have tried to find ways to commemorate the lives of the deceased and have done so in a variety of ways. They have passed down legends in the form of stories or songs.
They have done so by studying genealogy and finding the graves of family members long dead. And they remember those who came before them by continuing family traditions that were started generations ago and on continents far away.
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But how do you remember the death of a great person who passed? How do you commemorate a large group of people who sacrificed their lives for the good of society or their country? While you could erect a statue of that person or group of people, this image might speak more about the individual’s life instead of the sacrifice they made by dying.
This is the purpose of a cenotaph, which is different from a typical war memorial you might see in a city or cemetery. If you’re curious to know more, keep reading to learn about cenotaphs and where to find them around the world.
What’s a Cenotaph?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a cenotaph is “a tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere.” It comes from a Greek phrase meaning “empty tomb.”
In fact, some cenotaphs are built to look like a tomb or a mausoleum. They are usually stately structures meant to bring honor to the person or group of people who died.
Cenotaphs are typically found on public land, especially in parks. They may also be found in churches. Even though they look like they could have been built over fallen veterans’ remains, they are not placed near the bodies of the deceased.
A cenotaph may have held the remains of a body in the past, but to be considered a true cenotaph, those remains must have been removed. The tomb must be empty.
Difference between a cenotaph and a war memorial
There’s a fine line in the difference between a cenotaph and a war memorial. Here are some of the distinctions that separate the two types of memorials.
Cenotaphs can be a type of war memorial. A war memorial is considered a cenotaph if it looks like a mausoleum or tomb, and may even have a memorial plaque letting you know about the loss it memorializes. Also, the purpose of a cenotaph war memorial is to honor the dead.
Some war memorials commemorate a war or a battle, but may not specifically honor the fallen soldiers. These are not cenotaphs. Other war memorials honor the fallen soldiers, but they are not designed like a mausoleum or tomb. These are not cenotaphs, either.
Here are some examples of cenotaphs from across the globe.
16 Famous Cenotaphs From Around the World
You may have visited several cenotaphs on your travels throughout the country and world without realizing it. Consider the following cenotaphs to see if any of them sound familiar.
1. The Cenotaph in London, England
One of the best examples of a cenotaph is appropriately called The Cenotaph. It can be found on Whitehall, a street in Westminster located in central London. The Cenotaph in London is designated as the official national war memorial for all of the United Kingdom.
The Cenotaph was made at the end of World War I, and it is 35 feet high.
2. The Spirit of Sacrifice in San Antonio, Texas
The Battle of the Alamo is one of the most famous battles in the Republic of Texas history. Located across the street from the Alamo Mission, The Spirit of Sacrifice allows visitors to reflect upon the people who lost their lives during this battle.
The inscription of the San Antonio cenotaph begins, “Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas.”
3. Cenotaph of Michel de Montaigne in Bordeaux, France
Michel de Montaigne was a French renaissance writer. His wife thought he was “a man born for the glory, with gentle manners, a witty mind,” and she had a cenotaph erected in his honor, with those very words engraved.
4. World War I Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri
One of Kansas City’s most distinctive features is the World War I memorial that sits high on a hill across from the historic Union Station. Near the memorial sits a black, granite cenotaph, which honors the dead who died in the Great War.
5. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial in Dallas, Texas
You will find a JFK Memorial Cenotaph only blocks away from the site of Kennedy’s assassination, which was built in 1970 to honor his legacy.
6. The Cenotaph in Hong Kong
The Cenotaph in Hong Kong is almost an exact replica as The Cenotaph in London. It was built to commemorate the dead in World War I and II.
7. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park honors the lives of the military members and civilians who died from the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. during World War II. The cenotaph was built on an open field that was created by the bomb.
8. War Memorial Chapel in Blacksburg, Virginia
There is a cenotaph on top of the War Memorial Chapel located on the campus of Virginia Tech. This cenotaph was built to honor the institution’s cadets who have been killed in various battles.
9. Hobart Cenotaph in Hobart, Tasmania
The Hobart Cenotaph overlooks the city of Hobart and the Derwent River. It honors the lives that were lost during various wars and conflicts.
10. Peace Monument in Decatur, Indiana
This unique memorial was designed to celebrate peace. The monument depicts a battlefield nurse’s image, so this cenotaph commemorates those who serve in battle in other ways besides killing.
11. The Battle Monument in Baltimore, Maryland
The generically named Battle Monument in Baltimore is considered the first war memorial built in the United States. The image of the monument is important to Baltimore’s people, as it is found on the city’s official seal and logo.
12. The Cenotaph in Belfast, Northern Ireland
The Cenotaph in Belfast can be found at the center of the Garden of Remembrance. Of course, a garden is just one example of a living memorial that can honor individuals as well as large groups of people.
13. Congressional Cemetery Cenotaphs, Washington, D.C.
There are 168 large cenotaphs at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. They were erected for each congressperson who died while in office from 1833 to 1876. Many of them are considered cenotaphs because the remains of the deceased are not located near the monument.
14. Cenotaph in Indianapolis, Indiana
Located in the Sunken Lawn, the Cenotaph in Indianapolis honors fallen veterans. Four granite columns are placed in the four corners of the empty tomb. Gold-leafed eagles top each of the columns.
15. Lloydminister Cenotaph in Lloydminister, Alberta
The Lloydminister Cenotaph commemorates the deaths of Candian soldiers from both world wars.
16. British Columbia Legislature Cenotaph in Victoria, British Columbia
Located outside the parliament buildings in Victoria, the Cenotaph on this site was designed to commemorate soldiers’ sacrifices in World War I and II and the Korean War.
Which Cenotaph Did We Forget?
How can you tell the difference between a memorial and a cenotaph? Sometimes the distinction is challenging to make. After all, why is the Washington Monument not considered a cenotaph? Perhaps the answer is as simple as it is not called the Washington Cenotaph.
Unlike the widow of Michel de Montaigne, we cannot all build elaborate cenotaphs for our beloved spouses. But we can work hard to keep the memory of our loved ones alive.
We can place headstones at their burial sites and put flowers on their graves throughout the year. We can pass out tokens at our loved one’s funeral, which will cause those who attended to think about the one you lost when they run across the token. We can also keep the family traditions that your loved one started and celebrate special days just as “grandma would have liked.”
More than anything else, we can try to keep our loved one’s memories alive by telling stories and sharing photos. Write down the memories of your family members, so your descendants can realize they were more than just a name on a headstone or a person in a photograph.
- “Cenotaph.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 27 May 2020, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cenotaph.
- “The Cenotaph.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 October 2008, www.britannica.com/technology/cenotaph.