Cenotaphs: monuments to our veterans

There are more than 6,200 war memorials across the country. Among them are 76 cenotaphs, or monuments erected to remember people who were killed in battle.
Kerry-Lynn Arnold lays a wreath at the cenotaph at Kandahar Airfield on Monday, Oct.4, 2010. Her husband, Cpl. Glen Arnold, was killed in Afghanistan in 2006. ((Jonathan Montpetit/Canadian Press))
Canadian veterans are remembered with more than 6,200 military memorials that have been catalogued across the country. The National Inventory of Military Memorials — a database maintained by the Directorate of History and Heritage at the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces — was set up to keep track of those memorials.

They range from plaques to paintings to the most recognizable of all — the cenotaph.

The database lists 76 cenotaphs that have been registered across the country. The best known is the National War Memorial in Ottawa. It was unveiled in May 1939 by King George VI to commemorate Canadians killed in the First World War. In 1982, it was rededicated to include those who served in the Second World War and the Korean conflict.

Canadian soldiers stand by the cenotaph during Remembrance Day celebrations Nov. 11, 2009 in Quebec City. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added to the War Memorial site in 2000. But the actual War Memorial — like all cenotaphs — contains no human remains.

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, cenotaphs are statues or structures erected to "commemorate Canadian war dead or veterans of an event associated with a military operation in which Canada was actively engaged since 1867." Those structures do not include buildings and artifacts such as aircraft, tanks, or cannons.

The word cenotaph derives from the Greek (kenos, meaning "empty" and taphos, "tomb").

While cenotaphs date back to the days of ancient Greece, the best-known cenotaph of modern times was built in London to commemorate those who fought in the First World War. The stone monument is plain, except for two wreaths carved on each end and the words "The Glorious Dead." The monument is flanked by flags from the countries that make up the United Kingdom. London's cenotaph influenced the design of other war memorials in the British Commonwealth.

Most Canadian war memorials — including cenotaphs — were built as a result of efforts by community groups, provincial governments, private sponsors, regimental associations, and veterans' organizations, like the Royal Canadian Legion.

There is no official process to get a cenotaph approved. There are no guidelines on what materials should be used — or where the monument should be located.

Cenotaphs normally pay tribute to groups of people, such as residents of a town or a regiment who died in combat. But they may also mark the sacrifice of one person.

In Squamish, B.C., a wooden cenotaph was erected in memory of John Askey Quick, the first local serviceman to be killed in the Second World War. It was originally placed in a forested area, which is now overgrown. The monument is to be moved.

In Smith, Alta., Gene and Wes Earl built a cenotaph out of cement, stone and wood to honour the veterans of the Smith and Hondo areas who served in the First and Second World Wars as well as the Korean conflict.

The town of Wasaga Beach, Ont., erected a cenotaph in 1993 as a memorial tribute to "all who have paid the supreme sacrifice." The town holds its Remembrance Day ceremonies there every year.

Fredericton's Legion Branch 4 president Jean-Guy Perrault examines the damaged Provincial Cenotaph on Nov. 9, 2009. Police say it's possible that the broken granite cross may have toppled on its own, rather than having been vandalized. ((Ray Bourgeois/Canadian Press))
In Madoc, Ont., a cenotaph was unveiled on Nov. 28, 1928, dedicated to the men of Madoc and vicinity who lost their lives in the battles of Somme, Festubert, Vimy Ridge and Passchendale in the First World War. The project was spearheaded by Madoc's Women's Institute as well as the Thompson family, which provided the land where the cenotaph stands.

Some cenotaphs — and other war memorials — have been neglected over the years. The groups that built them have either been unable to maintain them or the groups no longer exist. The federal government set up the Cenotaph/Monument Restoration Program  to provide money to fix crumbling monuments to Canada's war dead.

Under the program, only approved groups including municipal governments, non-profit groups, ex-service organizations, registered charities, historical groups, and educational institutions can apply for grants to repair a monument.

The program won't pay for:

  • The creation of new cenotaphs or monuments.
  • The conservation of artifacts that serve as, or form part of, a cenotaph or monument, such as aircraft or tanks.
  • Cenotaphs or monuments located outside of Canada.
  • Cenotaphs or monuments that are dedicated to an individual.

While any individual or business in Canada can build a cenotaph, they can't apply for a grant to restore it, if it starts falling apart.