The Debate over the Care of the Dead: The Case of World War I

WWIFrom the early of the twentieth century to the early 1960’s, there was much popular concern about the value and fairness of the funeral industry. Receipts were kept for funeral services rendered during the first half of the century, but according to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, receipts were considered questionable as accurate records of labor, pricing, and profit. Some segments of American society were quite suspicious because of the revenue the funeral industry generated. But though there were public hearings and official condemnations, the people still took their dead to funeral homes and paid for the services.

The First World War came at the outset of the period of debate and scrutiny. National leaders and family members expressed their views about burial and responsibility for the dead, as questions arose about repatriating the remains of American soldiers killed overseas. The debates about the value of the American funeral pivoted on questions like: What do the people want for their dead? What should the people want? And how much should it cost for the people to get what they want?

One of the earliest and most important moments in the public debate occurred at the end of the First World War, when the question arose of what to do about of those who fought and died for their country, or more specifically about their remains, sacred to the nation and to family members on the other side of the ocean from the battlefield. Federal government officials had responsibility for them, and they tried to make sense of the carnage to American citizens and come up with the appropriate way to dispose of the dead.

When America entered the war, the War Department’s plan was to maintain the policy followed in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines Insurrection: to repatriate the remains of the fallen and hand them over to loved ones. The services of the Purple Cross were declined—they were a volunteer organization of patriotic undertakers who claimed they could secure the return of the fallen, as Laderman quotes, “in a sanitary and recognizable condition a number of years after death.”

Instead of allowing these morticians to demonstrate their embalming skills, the War Department decided to leave the dead to the Graves Registration Service, the undertaking branch of the military.

This Service did not have much success burying the dead during the conflict, though American losses were significantly lighter than those of the other Allies. Conditions simply weren’t satisfactory in France for proper care of the dead, so General John J. Pershing commanded individual units to take on this obligation, The Graves Registration Service provided bureaucratic support to keep records, and they worked at establishing military cemeteries.

Repatriation was completely out of the question, even though the war dead were hailed as martyrs to the cause of liberty, back home in the States. The people of Pittsburgh requested the body of Private Thomas Enright, one of the first Americans killed in combat in 1917, but the War Department had to make its position clear. Complications on or near the field of battle made it necessary to postpone the return of fallen soldiers until the war ended.

The battle flared up immediately when the war was over. National cemeteries should be created in European countries, many political and military leaders felt. These would maintain the presence of the honored American dead. But citizens wanted family members brought back for burial. In May, 1920. Ralph Hayes, assistant to the secretary of war, produced a document entitled, “A Report to the Secretary of War on American Military Dead Overseas.” This document, written after Hayes visited Europe to take a firsthand look at the situation, reports on the divergence of opinion about repatriation. Laderman quotes: “I do not hesitate to say that the sight of actual disinterments, however reverently made, and the vision of the Fields of Honor have left me with the fervent hope that the proportion of parents preferring to have their sons rest overseas will be large.” He goes on to say, though, that the government must make good on its vow to leave the fate of the dead to the hands of family members.

The next installment will trace the fate of the World War I dead to their final resting place.

Read part two of this installment.

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