Death and Mourning. Part V of: If we are at war with Corona, can history of war teach us anything?

Many countries have lifted lockdowns, while others continue to be badly affected.  As of now, more than 650.000 people have died of the coronavirus (WHO 28.7.2020: 650.805 confirmed deaths, current numbers here). While for many, the overall feeling seems to be relief to have avoided even more deaths, it has been a significant loss to families and communities, which is only slowly acknowledged in the public and political discourse. Loss and mourning is a topic central to the experience and the historiography of war. In particular after the two world wars, loss was so omnipresent in the societies involved that commemoration as such changed and was more and more used to offer spaces of mourning for those left behind. We might consider adapting some thoughts of how to deal with mourning Covid-19 deaths from war commemoration.

Covid-19 is a potentially lethal virus. Accordingly, death has been omnipresent in the last months, though in different forms. Death was omnipresent as people died because of virus infections. Death rates first spiked in China, then in Italy. Soon, smaller cities and villages were overwhelmed. People died of the virus, some even because hospitals were no longer able to accommodate the number of patients requiring intensive care. Many of the Covid-19 victims did not receive a funeral according to the usual social traditions  because of new safety regulations to prevent a further spread of the virus and morgues, funeral homes and cemeteries could no longer cope with the sudden demand. Pictures of Covid-19 obituaries in Italian newspapers, covering seemingly endless pages with names, were shared in papers and social media. Even worse were pictures of the actual deaths, of bodies piled up to be transported to dismal funerals without families present.

In the following weeks and months, many measures (lockdown, quarantine) have been imposed to prevent letting these pictures become reality in other countries. Schools and childcare institutions were closed and family reunions discouraged because of the fear that children would easily spread the virus and, while apparently less affected than other age groups, would pass it on to their elderly relatives. Eventually, politicians decided to extend restrictions to the economy, imposing lockdowns on retailing and production in many countries and even enforcing regulations limiting personal freedom of movement with coercive measures.

It was all about death. It was all about the fear of death. It was about keeping numbers low, flattening the curve, saving lives.

When it worked, when less patients died, critics became louder, saying the virus had never been this lethal in the first place. According to statistics, lethal cases of Covid-19 were most frequent in higher age groups, with an average in Germany of more than 80. While the medical interpretation of these statements should be left to virologist, and the current debate on this subject will surely continue over the next years, historical research of war has indeed engaged with similar questions, namely in regard to debates about “lives worth living” as during the Second World War. 

At the same time, death is at the centre of how we deal with this crisis in a different regard: The complete lockdown of care homes and hospitals has prohibited visits, sometimes even to the severely ill. In many cases, this meant that relatives have not been able to visit their family members before their death, through Covid-19 or otherwise. Secondly, during lockdown, funerals were counted as mass conventions and thus regulated accordingly: Depending on the region and state policies, funerals were either conducted without anyone present (as in Italy) or restricted to very few attendants (5, 10) and members of the immediate family. Families and friends have thus been prevented from saying their goodbyes and from supporting each other in difficult times of grief by physical presence. Newspaper obituaries of 2020 show that funerals in March and early April have often been delayed with regard to the virus, still hoping that a “normal” funeral would be possible in little time. After that, most indicate that a funeral has taken place in intimate family circles instead of the usual gatherings. This affected everyone, even those who, in other times, could have been given larger, representative funerals. (Only with the death of George Floyd pictures of mass congregations at funerals resurfaced, but this opens yet a different topic.)

Death is at the centre of this pandemic, as a threat and as a social reality. This, probably more than any other comparison, is the most significant parallel between war and the Covid-19 pandemic and a point where the historiography of war might indeed be helpful in interpreting the current state.

The London Cenotaph. Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

In wartime, death is equally omnipresent, both as a threat and as a social reality. As a threat, the fear of being attacked (with its underlying fear of death) is central to morale, to mobilisation and to the willingness to defend, to counter-attack and to conduct pre-emptive strikes. Historical research of warfare has discussed the impact of this fear of death in multiple contexts. In their joint book “Atrocities”, John Horne and Alan Kramer explain how rumours about franc-tireurs (paramilitaries disguised as civilians, unmarked combatants) led to increased violence being exercised by German soldiers against civilians (whom they suspected to be said civilians in disguise) during their invasion of Belgium in 1914.  The fear of a German (potentially death bringing) invasion of the British population antagonized many against continental refugees who themselves had fled the Nazis. These continental refugees, the British feared, might be undercut by German infiltrators, working as a fifth column (a term from the Spanish civil war describing a group of enemy agents undermining the national defence mechanisms by pretending to be civilians). (Cf: Joanna Bourke, Plamper, Jan and Lazier, Benjamin, eds. Fear: Across the Disciplines. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press: 2012)

The social reality of death is central to the experience of war, too. It was and it remains central to both research and remembrance of war. Military history has evaluated reasons for losses and casualty numbers (military and civilian) during the war.  Social history of war can engage with the impact of these statistics on society. Casualty numbers and careful study of statistics offer information about where people died and why, what parts and which members of society were mostly affected.

Cultural history of war engages with the experience of death in society, with the emotions of the bereaved, and with their (disappointed) need to properly mourn their family members, to commemorate, and to make sense of their death.  Processing someone’s untimely death and trying to make sense of it has always been central to the ways how societies dealt with war, and it will probably be central to how we will deal with the coronavirus during the coming months and years. At least it should be.

After the First World War, a significant shift in the way to experience and to remember war  took place: The immense loss and the necessity to mourn led to the fact that instead of generals and war heroes, memorials commemorated the fallen. Instead of Victory and leading figures (as, for example, the victory towers / Siegestürme in Germany after the Franco-Prussian war), memorials were dedicated to sacrifice and loss, to commemorate the war victims. Additionally, because of foreign or overseas theatres of war, many fallen soldiers could never be retrieved or never properly buried, which troubled the mourning families and societies. To ease this tension, anonymous graves and memorials were transformed into collective spaces of mourning.

This new approach has its paradigm in the invention of graves of unknown soldiers. Since too many soldiers died who could not receive a proper burial (because they could not be identified, or because they were far away from their families), the idea, first introduced in France, then quickly spreading over the world, was to arrange a state funeral for an unidentified soldier, who would then signify every soldiers fallen in the war, and in particular every soldier without a proper grave or who could not be retrieved home. The aim was  to provide the bereaved families with a signified space to mourn. As a variation on this topic, Great Britain introduced the cenotaph, an empty grave, to serve the same function: the empty grave was supposed to be every fallen soldiers grave, to provide a space of commemoration for those left behind. Both the grave of the Unknown Soldier and the British Cenotaph for example served as proxy for personal graves for the mourning societies. Many historians have discussed the importance of mourning and the development of commemoration for different countries, to many to list here but a few such as Annette Becker and Adrian Gregory for the French and British memory of the First World War, Anne Dolan for the Irish Civil War, Ken Inglis for war memorials in Australia and beyond, Robert Traba for the Polish memory of the World Wars.

By late April 2020, Covid-19 casualties in the US had already surpassed both the number of American soldiers fallen during the First World War (53,402) or during the Vietnam war (58,220) or Department for Veterans Affairs By now, late July, the current number (147.672 on 29.7.2020) has by far surpassed American casualties of both wars combined.

Families all over the world have lost loved ones, and, most importantly, many were not able to say their farewells. It might be time to start thinking about how to give them space for their commemoration.


There are various problems of comparing a health crisis to wars, and in particular to the Second World War (see our first post of the corona series).  However, the comparisons were used in many ways, regarding the threat as well as the societal impact. Responding to these comparisons, this series asks: if we do choose to speak of the virus in terms of warfare, what can the history of war teach us?

Recent posts have discussed stock piling (on fear, Post 1), news and media consumption (Post 2), rainbows and corona cocktails ( “war culture” Post 3) and mobility (Post 4). Today’s post continues within the realms of cultural history, but engages with a more serious topic: death and mourning.

Let me repeat that I am neither a historian of medicine nor of pandemics, but others are, whose work has to be highly recommended in this context (compare the links in our previous corona blog entries). Let me add to my inconclusive list historian of science Juliana Adelman, who runs a column in the Irish Times and has recently made interesting points about the social components of flattening the curve: trust in science and a socially defined female responsibility to clean and care.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Julia Eichenberg (July 29, 2020). Death and Mourning. Part V of: If we are at war with Corona, can history of war teach us anything? The London Moment. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

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