A group of soldiers in WWI uniforms standing around a flag-draped coffin among tall cross-topped grave stones.

“Considerable Grief”: Dead Bodies, Mortuary Science, and Repatriation after the Great War

In September 1919, Mary McKenney was forced to relive the horrors of her husband Arthur’s death. Sergeant Arthur McKenney was wounded in France and returned to the United States.1 Despite his minor injury, he later died at a US Army hospital in Colonia, New Jersey from shock following an operation. After the autopsy, his body was turned over to an undertaker and then shipped home. The military inspector who cleared the body for travel missed the undertaker’s unsuccessful attempt to close the autopsy incisions. Arthur McKenney arrived in Boston, but the box was poorly nailed and emitted a horrible odor. The body appeared in an “advanced stage of putrefaction…the underclothing was stained and the coat wet from purging,” and fluid “trickled from the mouth and nose.”2 The incident precipitated a wave of correspondence between Arthur’s family and military personnel. It serves as a symbol of the politically charged intersection of deceased service members’ bodies, the state, and the family in modern war.

The nature of the First World War, which was overwhelmingly fought with artillery, meant that explosions and shrapnel often left little to no evidence of a deceased soldier’s body. Among French troops, the bodies of nearly half of the 1.4 million dead were in the categories of “missing” or “unidentifiable.”3 This precipitated a transnational need for memorial sites for unknown soldiers. One such ossuary near Verdun holds the remains of 130,000 unidentifiable French and German soldiers. Tombs of the Unknown Soldier emerged in different forms in many belligerent nations.

Scholars have examined the politics of repatriation in First and Second World War contexts when bodies were either partially or completely missing. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) Maintenance Unit, for example, was charged with the recovery of aircraft and human remains after a crash, and oftentimes they could only find pieces of pilots. In these cases, they used weighted, full-sized, and sealed coffins “raised to the appropriate weight of a body” to give grieving families the impression that the whole body was recovered.4 And at least with the case of Sgt. Dennis Noble, his family didn’t realize the coffin was filled with bricks until later excavations recovered his actual body.

A flag-draped coffin with a line of men in uniforms standing at attention behind it and another reading over the coffin.
A burial ceremony for an American soldier in La Rochelle Cemetery. (Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918-ca.1981, US National Archives)

The burial and repatriation practices of the world wars were the culmination of a longer history that had consolidated by the turn of the twentieth century. In the United States after the Civil War, the public increasingly expected the government to bury the dead, and national cemeteries proliferated.5 The War Department first practiced returning bodies during the Spanish-American War in 1898. By World War I, the War Department again accepted that similar arrangements needed to be made. Not all belligerent states agreed on repatriation. British authorities prohibited many exhumations of their own soldiers, despite waves of protests and petitions to the Imperial War Graves Commission from families. Germany, France, and Belgium allowed repatriation often at the request of next-of-kin. France, for example, completed roughly 960,000 exhumations of Great War dead.6

Unlike European countries that were relatively close to the Western Front, transporting bodies to the United States proved a logistical and political challenge. The Graves Registration Service (GRS), created in 1917, was responsible for identifying, exhuming, and registering the bodies of American dead in over 2,300 temporary cemeteries across Europe. By 1919, Americans grew impatient that their loved ones hadn’t yet been returned, and letters flooded the War Department. In March of that year, the Department sent 74,770 ballots to families letting them decide the fate of their relative’s body. By January 1920, they received over 63,000 replies.7

An index-card shaped official card with type-written text on it.
Mike Sulz burial registration card. (Card Register of Burials of Deceased American Soldiers, 1917-1922, US National Archives)
An index-card shaped official card with type-written text on it.
Willian Unfur Jr. burial registration card. (Card Register of Burials of Deceased American Soldiers, 1917-1922, US National Archives)

Most families initially preferred repatriation, but individuals and organizations sought to sway their decision. General John O’Ryan of the 27th Division found communicating with families particularly difficult, especially in cases where there was “very little to ship back in the way of remains.” More idealistic appeals, like the Bring Home the Soldier Dead League — a group of primarily wealthy parents and widows — argued that American soldiers should be buried in the United States, and unlike British or French families, theirs couldn’t easily visit graves in Europe. Another organization, the American Field of Honor Association (AFHA), argued disinterring would cost millions “from the public treasury” and risked returning the wrong body to the wrong family. They also suspected a “plot by American morticians” to take advantage of the situation.8

Despite their reluctance, by April 1921 the Army had repatriated roughly 14,800 American bodies.9 Exhumation brought with it some particular challenges, as many bodies had been buried for over two years without embalming and were often decomposed.10 Individual units typically buried bodies during the war in spaces easily accessible, like makeshift cemeteries, common graves, or even shell holes. Once exhumed, they were usually re-buried two to three more times. One soldier who died weeks before the end of the war was buried in “Shell hole, near Ronssoy,” disinterred and reburied in a temporary cemetery in May 1919, and then again reburied in the Somme American Cemetery in March 1928.11 If repatriated, the GRS removed the bodies to makeshift morgues in Europe, and then loaded them onto transport ships bound for the United States, delivering them to family residences or hometowns.

A man in a work uniform posing next to a WWI airplane engine.
Staff Sgt. Edward J. Bayon, Army Air Corps in England WWII. (Edward J. Bayon Collection, Veterans History Project/American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

Those in the GRS charged with bringing home the soldier dead saw it as both a wrenching and an honorable experience. Edward Bayon sailed through the canals of France and Belgium with a barge of 952 American dead and recounted his experiences with local communities in his memoir. After passing almost unnoticed in France, they reached Riviere in Belgium where “the whole town had turned out to meet us with flags and flowers…The word of our passing had gone on ahead and at every village where we had to pass through locks it was a repetition of Riviere.”12 Bayon took great care in dealing with the bodies and recognized the symbolic importance transportation imparted. Other efforts came with controversy. In the summer of 1921, a New Jersey father allegedly returned home to find his son’s coffin sitting on his front porch, delivered while he was gone.13 Regardless of isolated mishaps, repatriation remained an important and honorable practice for men like Bayon.

Despite the military’s qualms about the funerary profession, and its own at times haphazard handling of bodies, it still relied on contracts with private undertakers. One War Department contract signed in July 1919 between US Army General Hospital No. 7 in Baltimore and James A. Jones and Edward Tulson provides a glimpse into this process. The undertaker prepared and embalmed the body to the satisfaction of the Medical Officer in charge and then placed it into a casket and shipped it to the family location.14 Many of the individual general hospitals throughout the United States entered into contracts like these with local undertakers.

Arthur McKenney’s death in a stateside hospital meant that the McKenneys didn’t have to make the difficult decision whether or not to transport him home. Yet they still experienced bureaucratic complications in their loved one’s route from hospital to home. Subsequent military investigations proved that careful embalming would have avoided the grief that Mary McKenney experienced. Jones, the undertaker, argued that he did his work “thoroughly and properly, sewing up the incisions,” and that “he punctured the intestines to relieve the gas, filled the cavities with embalming fluid, washed and dressed the body and placed it in a casket.” He claimed the body was in good condition when it left for Boston, where McKenney and the undertaker encountered it in its horrific state.

A white wooden coffin.
A photograph of a coffin from the James A. Jones and Edward Toulson collection, RG 112, Series UD 8, Box 915, Folder 160: Contracts. (US National Archives)

The investigation turned to the medical officer on duty that day, who according to military policy and contracts, was charged with inspecting remains. The captain had “made his inspection in a few moments…profess[ing] ignorance of knowledge as to what constituted the proper embalming of bodies” and “did not appear to be familiar with the specifications of the contract.” The inspector recommended the hospital at Colonia give no more work to Jones and discharge the Medical Officer from the service for causing “considerable grief” to the family.15

Mary’s experience with her husband Arthur’s body opens a window into the development of modern funerary sciences, ideas about state responsibility for the war dead, and realities about public mourning. Military distrust didn’t stop Army hospitals from entering into contracts with undertakers whose mortician science was little understood by individual medical officers, including the man charged with inspecting Arthur’s body. The rapid demobilization after 1918 and the massive transportation of bodies was a major organizational effort that was not without controversy. Arthur’s case in particular shows that the issues of preparing and transporting American war dead were not isolated simply to those killed in Europe. Instead, soldier-patients like Arthur died in the United States from war complications, and their bodies faced arduous journeys home to the families who grieved them.

Notes

  1. “Arthur McKenney,” Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919, Adjutant General’s Office, Series B0808, New York State Archives, Albany, New York. Return to text.
  2. The Surgeon General to Joseph H. Ford, “Instruction of subordinate officers regarding compliance with orders received from higher authority,” November 21, 1919, RG 112, Series NM 31 (K), Box 194, Folder 293.9-3: General Hospital #3 (K), US National Archives. Return to text.
  3. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 217. Return to text.
  4. Gabriel Moshenska, “’Token Scraps of Men’: White Lies, Weighted Coffins, and Second World War Air-Crash Casualties,” in Paul Cornish and Nicholas J. Saunders, eds., Bodies in Conflict: Corporeality, Materiality and Transformation (New York: Routledge, 2014), 133-135. American families allegedly found numbers of caskets sent back to the United States with rocks in them. See Lisa M. Budreau, Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 77. Return to text.
  5. Budreau, Bodies of War, p. 24. Return to text.
  6. Dominiek Dendooven, “Bringing the Dead Home: Repatriation, Illegal Repatriation and Expatriation of British Bodies During and After the First World War,” in Paul Cornish and Nicholas J. Saunders, eds., Bodies in Conflict: Corporeality, Materiality and Transformation (New York: Routledge, 2014), 71. Return to text.
  7. Budreau, Bodies of War, 22-44. Return to text.
  8. Budreau, 45-71. Return to text.
  9. Budreau, 78. Return to text.
  10. Budreau, 49. Return to text.
  11. Willian Unfur Jr., File Unit: Unfur-Vibbert, RG 92, Series: Card Register of Burials of Deceased American Soldiers, 1917-1922, US National Archives. Return to text.
  12. Edward J. Bayon Collection (AFC/2001/001/05816), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Return to text.
  13. Budeau, Bodies of War, 77-78. Return to text.
  14. Contract between Captain W.B. Bradley and James A. Jones and Edward Tulson, July 1, 1919, RG 112, Series UD 8, Box 915, Folder 160: Contracts, US National Archives. Return to text.
  15. The Surgeon General to Captain Benjamin S., “Admonition” January 13, 1920, RG 112, Series NM 31 (K), Box 194, Folder 293.9-3: General Hospital #3 (K), US National Archives; The Surgeon General to Col. Joseph F., “Instruction of subordinate officers regarding compliance with orders received from higher authority,” November 21, 1919, RG 112, Series NM 31 (K), Box 194, Folder 293.9-3: General Hospital #3 (K), US National Archives. Return to text.

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