What is the meaning and purpose of a war memorial?

What is the meaning and purpose of a war memorial?

Banner on cenotaph begged questions for writer

This question has been at the centre of many of my recent conversations. It began with a gathering at Jubilee Park. What caught my attention was a banner hung across Wetaskiwin’s cenotaph. While I did not think any disrespect was intended, I did question its appropriateness. Richard Godin, a veteran and colleague of mine, disagreed, stating:

“All members of our Canadian Armed Forces, serving and retired, wore their uniform and served their country to ensure that all Canadians had the right to exercise their right to free speech and the right to gather to promote their views regardless of race, creed, gender, or political affiliation. The fact that these persons used the cenotaph to express those views should not be construed as an insult or injury to all our veterans, but should be viewed as a positive affirmation of the service that all veterans gave that enabled all persons to assemble without fear of retribution or reprisal…. At the end of the day, I for one am glad that they used that area for their event because it justifies its existence and the service of all veterans, those who have passed, the living, and the future members.”

I also had the opportunity to talk to a member of the group who used the cenotaph and asked why they chose to do so as they did. Their reasoning included accessibility and the simple fact that they have been doing so for the past nine years. More importantly though, they felt the fact that it was already a memorial area fit well with their message of mental illness and that they were able to build upon what was already there. They also assured me no damage was done to the memorial, and they left the area cleaner than when they arrived.

While, I agree with both ideologies, for me there is a difference between an activity AT the cenotaph and ON the cenotaph. This stems from the symbolic importance I give to built heritage and the historical meaning and purpose of this type of memorial.

The word cenotaph comes from the Greek κενοτάφιον (kenotaphion), which literally means empty tomb. From as early as the 8th Century BCE, ancient Greek cenotaphs existed in the homeland of a person whose body was either lost or buried elsewhere. Similar practices are seen in multiple cultures throughout history. The best-known modern cenotaph was built in London in 1919. It is dedicated to ‘The Glorious Dead’. No names were inscribed on it so as to allow individuals to assign their own meaning to the memorial.

In Canada, the decision of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1918 not to repatriate any of the bodies of the men who died on the front brought cenotaphs to the forefront of our memorial practices as well. They acted as a tomb in the home communities of soldiers whose bodies remained in Europe, providing for a place of contemplation, reflection, and remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price and for those they left behind.

Wetaskiwin’s first cenotaph was built in 1932. This memorial was replaced by the Royal Canadian Legion Branch no. 86 in conjunction with the City of Wetaskiwin. Unveiled on September 14, 1955, it was dedicated to those who made the supreme sacrifice in both World Wars and Korea. It was designed by Bob Angus and consists of two stone cairns, representing the two World Wars. The design may also pay homage to an ancient Greek practice. Prior to leaving for battle, soldiers would place a stone in a pile and then retrieve that stone when they returned; the stones remaining symbolized those who did not come back.

For me, cenotaphs (such as the one in Jubilee Park) and war monuments (including the Wetaskiwin Field of Hounour Cairn in the new cemetery) are two different things. While both are memorials, the first is the tomb of those who never came home, the second honours all those who served. And so, what I saw in that gathering at Jubilee Park was two empty tombs being used as banner poles.

After all my conversations, I am struggling now with what the purpose of a war memorial is. To my knowledge, there are eight in our community of Wetaskiwin City, County, and Maskwacis. The two mentioned above, a cairn and cross at Ma-Me-O beach, cenotaphs dedicated to fallen soldiers at Mulhurst Bay, Millet, Thorsby, and Winfield, and the most recent at Maskwacis, a monument to all who served. Do all these memorials have to mean the same thing that they meant when first erected, or for each person? Can, or should, their meaning change so that they have a greater significance for current and future generations?

What do you think?

PHOTO CREDITS: Black and white photo: First Cenotaph Dedication, 1932 (with Gov. Gen. Bessborough) – Photo courtesy of the City of Wetaskiwin Archives, no. 10949, colour photo: Second Cenotaph Monument in Jubilee Park, c.1963. Photo courtesy of the City of Wetaskiwin Archives no. 18108.

Dr. Karen Aberle is the Executive Director & Chief Curator at the Wetaskiwin & District Heritage Museum and writes a regular column for the Pipestone Flyer. She can be reached at wdhm@persona.ca.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

There were six additional deaths across Alberta reported over the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 1,926 since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
file photo
Wetaskiwin RCMP respond to break and enter and theft at a Wetaskiwin church

RCMP responded to a break and enter and theft at Jesus Cares Fellowship Church.

file photo
County of Wetaskiwin office to re-open Monday April 19, 2021

County of Wetaskiwin is re-opening their office and public works shops to the public on April 19

Dr. Wayne John Edwards, 66, died Tuesday at Chinook Regional Hospital. (Cornerstone Funeral Home)
Lethbridge doctor becomes 7th Alberta health-care worker to die from COVID-19

Dr. Wayne John Edwards, who was 66, died Tuesday at the Chinook Regional Hospital in the southern Alberta city

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

A vial of some of the first 500,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Canada’s 2nd blood clot confirmed in Alberta after AstraZeneca vaccine

The male patient, who is in his 60s, is said to be recovering

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Doses of the Moderna COVID‑19 vaccine in a freezer trailer, to be transported to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pfizer to increase vaccine deliveries in Canada as Moderna supply slashed

Moderna plans to ship 650,000 doses of its vaccine to Canada by the end of the month, instead of the expected 1.2 million

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. The Alberta government says schools in Calgary will move to at-home learning starting Monday for students in grades 7 to 12.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary schools to shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12 due to COVID-19

The change, due to COVID-19, is to last for two weeks

A man wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
COVID-19 spike in B.C. could overwhelm B.C. hospitals: modelling group

There are 397 people are in hospital due to the virus, surpassing a previous high of 374 seen in December

Most Read