World War II: Deceased Identification and Funeral

Before holding the funerals for the deceased in World War II, one of the necessary tasks to do is to identify the bodies and relate their family.

During the World War II, Graves Registration Service (GRS) teams were deployed to take charge of bodies retrieved from the battlefield and the remains of service personnel who died in field hospitals of combat- or non-combat-related causes.They identified a soldier by looking at their M1940 identification tags, the so-called “dog tags”. Mostly, the M1940 identification tags provided sufficient information. However, when the tags were missing, the deceased soldier’s pockets were searched for other evidence, such as a letter from home or a photo of a wife or girlfriend. In some cases, a note written by the dead soldier’s superior or comrades before the body was evacuated provided the needed information. Also, a distinguishing feature, such as a birthmark or tattoo, or even laundry marks on clothing and serial numbers on watches, helped in the identification process. [1]

13 Jun 1944, France — American Dead After D-Day Landings — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

After the identification of the victim, the War Department was notified by the field command and a telegram was dispatched to the deceased’s next of kin that began, “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son [husband, father, etc.] has been reported killed in action….” This was usually followed by a personal letter of condolence from the deceased’s unit commander. [1]

The cultural and ethics aspects of funerals for many different cultures were immensely impacted and even inhibited by the many devastating events that took place throughout the course of World War II. The Holocaust and atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were three events that this effect could be seen, especially through their cultural aspects as the Japanese and Jewish communities both had very traditional funeral practices that were not able to be followed as they should have been because of these great tragedies.

The Jewish community was especially affected during this time of history, as most of their population was wiped out by Hitler and the Nazi regime.From Nazi Germany all the way to the Pacific Theatre in Japan the ability to properly carry out funerals was met with challenges. In Nazi Germany there was a man by the name of Frank Blaichman who would work in connection with the Judenrat, which were councils made up of Jewish people carrying out the orders of the Nazis, and Blaichman would receive word from them as to when the Nazis would be coming into town to take the Jewish population there to the concentration camps. Blaichman would go against this intel and remove people from the city and formed a small militia to defend any Jewish people from having to experience the horrible things that were to go on in the camps. [2]

The loss of proper ethical treatment for the deaths of the Jews came once they reached the camps. They were denied the proper funeral rites that their religion practices. Traditional Jewish funeral practices entail many different ideals that should be carried out, such as a cleansing of the deceased body, readings from the Torah, mostly consisting of psalms from the Book of Psalms, and a proper casket, which is to be simple and have little to no decorations such as flowers. Another tradition of the Jewish funeral is that the immediate family members are to be the first to place the dirt back onto the casket once it is in the ground. [3] These practices are just a few of the traditions that the Jewish people hold in high regards as it is their belief that these customs help not only those who have passed away but also those who are mourning the loss. During the Holocaust, however, the practices were not able to be properly executed as family members either died in camps together or in separate camps or were unable to find the bodies of their loved ones if they were fortunate enough to have survived. There were many ways in which the Jewish people were killed in concentration camps, the most well-known being cremated in the showering rooms, and all of these ways were not conducive to the proper funerals of the Jewish religion. The cremating of the bodies is of particular concern to the Jewish religion as they believe that the body of the deceased should not be tampered with in any way as it would interfere with the decomposition of the body. [3] The Nazis also made mass graves, throwing hundreds upon thousands of bodies into a singular hole, which again goes directly against the tradition of a singular body in a singular, simple casket. [3] All of these violations of the Jewish faith, in terms of funeral preparation and execution, shook the culture of the Jewish community throughout the world as millions were unable to properly honor their family members. The question of whether or not mass graves existed in the camps was relevant for a small period of time after their discovery, but the Treblinka camp in Poland was discovered and put any question of their existence to rest.[4] Upon the excavation of this camp there was a long line of mass graves discovered with remains that were heavily mangled to further add to the horrific acts that were undertaken at this camp. The Nazis worked to also destroy as much of the camp as they could before they left which was made clear by the massive amounts of rubble left lying around the camp. This was eventually found to be true for many of the other camps throughout Nazi Germany as well. Upon the discovery of these graves it was nearly impossible to identify many of the bodies, stories were rampant from survivors in which they recalled seeing someone turn to go another way and never seeing them again only to assume they died. This disconnect ruined any ability to proceed in proper burials for those whose lives were lost in these camps.

On the other end of the war in the Pacific Theatre, the dropping of the atom bomb would serve to negate the ability for many proper funerals. The most immediate sign of this is from the sheer destructive power that was unleashed from the dropping of the bomb. A famous piece of the horrific day in Hiroshima comes from the shadow left behind from a man sitting on the footsteps to a bank when the bomb was dropped. No remains were there upon impact, simply the shadow from the blast with no identification possible from whoever was sitting there. These stairs have since been preserved as a sign of how terrible and powerful the bombs were. [5] This famous piece of history is an immediate sign to how difficult it was to identify the dead and give them a proper burial by the standards of the Japanese. Stories from survivors verify this very well, as they discuss how people they were separated from were never found and how people they could find were far too gone to give a real funeral too. Yoshiro Yamawaki Retold the tale of his father’s horrific death and their inability to give him a proper funeral best. After the bombing, Yamawaki would venture out with his siblings to find his father’s remains, after putting him up onto a piece of wood to attempt cremating him they would fail and have to leave his body mangled and destroyed where it lay. [6] He would go on to say that the worst feeling was realizing he would never be able to give his father a proper funeral that he felt he deserved.

The Japanese culture surrounding funerals is slightly more complex than that of the Jewish community as Japan is a country filled with people of many different religious beliefs. However, the Japanese still had a “funeral ritual” that would compromise of many different things that honored the deceased and the family members who were mourning. Like the Jewish people, the Japanese, specifically Japanese Buddhists, prefer to cleanse the body of the deceased, wrap the body in an anointed garment, and they would finish the funeral ritual with a procession of those who attended the funeral to follow the casket to the burial site. Unlike the Jewish funeral, however, this casket would be decorated and they would bring flowers and many other gifts to offer to the body. [7] Now, because of the atomic bombings that took place in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, many bodies were completely vaporized by the blast, as one Japanese man recalls walking through the remains of the city seeing bodies that were completely charred over and could not be distinguished. [8] Many families were in these cities together when the bombs dropped, meaning that family members who lived in different areas would not know if any members survived or what their whereabouts were. With the inability to conduct proper funeral rituals for the deceased, many were left mourning without having a proper farewell to their loved ones. These were terrible events that happened to both the Jewish and Japanese cultures, but they also provided changes to the cultures that promote both unity with others and provide clarity with death.

The ethical inadequacies of funerals during world war II were primarily rooted in the catastrophic events that took place. Unable to identify the dead, many were never even given the chance to have a funeral at all. Then at times when people were identified they were so far gone that funerals had to be carried out differently or they were impossible to carry out at all. Often times in war bodies are lost on a battlefield but more often than not families are given the comfort of eventually being able to bury their loved ones or receive the closure to know that they are confirmed to have been lost in battle. With these events during World War II many of the families never even came close to that

The Jewish and Japanese cultures surrounding death around these tragedies have changed since World War II. The Jewish community celebrates an event called Righteous Among Nations, which is an age-old tradition in the Jewish religion, except after the Holocaust, the Jewish people turned a lot of attention to those who were non-Jews during World War II that helped Jewish people hide from the Nazis. Martin Gilbert talks of his story of walking to Mount Zion in order to celebrate the lives of those who were lost during the Holocaust along with those who were saved by non-Jews. [9] This promotion of those who showed kindness in times of absolute fear and death truly shows what Jewish culture is about. The Japanese had a slightly different change in culture than the Jewish people, however, it still promotes similar qualities. Funerals became more commercialized according to an elderly Japanese man as the funeral industry began to rise after World War II, causing a change from funeral rituals to funeral ceremonies. [10] This change also led to a change in the way the Japanese viewed funerals as they became less of a cleansing of the spirit of the deceased to a promotion of a positive view of the person who passed.

After the war, the recognition of WWII victims’ identity is still in progress. Once the deceased is found, people will first use data from archives, historical reports, and memoirs of witnesses to denote the area. The preliminary conclusions are drawn as to the belonging of the deceased to a certain military unit. These conclusions are based on the various artifacts found next to the remains, like underwear buttons. For instance, Soviet soldiers’ buttons were made of plastic and had a small size, white color, and three or four holes. German soldiers had metal saucer-shaped buttons with three holes. The most definitive finding for identification is post mortem medallions. Until 1943, the Red Army employed paper medallions placed in bakelite capsules; after 1943, medallions in the form of a small paper book were introduced. The problem with these medallions is that, decades after being in the ground, their interpretation requires a special expert approach. [11] Thus, recently, The DNA technology is increasingly utilized in this situation. The step after the recovery and excavation of the skeletal remains is the anthropological examination. The remains were usually cleaned, washed, dried and partially reconstructed. Efforts were made to determine sex, age, and stature. The absence of a clearly female pelvis or skull was taken as satisfactorily evidence of the individual being male. The epiphyseal fusion was the primary way to determine ages. The remains were also carefully examined for signs of disease, injury, or skeletal anomalies. All injuries were noted in detail, with emphasis on type and location of the injuries, and photographs were taken. The step towards the DNA testing is the collection of sample blood from the alive, usually some voluntary families.  In most cases, preferred samples from the deceased body included either a molar or sample from a femur. The surface of the skeletal element was removed to eliminate gross contaminants and dirt. These samples were able to provide DNA files to be screened for possible matches to family reference. The missing Norwegian World War II soldiers in Karelia Russia were successfully identified using this method. [12]

Nowadays, when any dog tags or other clues is found, the staff in charge will check their records and clarify the individual fates of the war dead. If the identity can be established, the staff will send relatives notification like during the war. [13]

The Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project, established by Yad Vashem, is aimed to collect names of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Through the Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, people can search for information about their family history during the Shoah. There is also The Page of Testimony restoring the personal identities and the brief life stories of the Jews. [14]Except that, the ability to deal with these lost lives and give them proper burials is still an issue. In January of this year the British Jewish community carried out a funeral for 1200 unidentified victims of the holocaust. [15] The Rabbi carrying out the funeral processions would speak on this in mentioning that although these people remained un-known they were still very much so people. Even with this the families of these people were unaware of whether or not it was their loved one, and this funeral was meant to be an act of respect for those lives lost. At the time of the holocaust they lost this due to the cruel actions of the Third Reich. The destruction of natural human rights was so extreme a funeral with even the slightest amount of respect for a Jewish person in the camps was intensely unlikely.

 

Citation

[1]”Burying the Dead in WWII: The Quartermaster Graves Registration Service” Warfare History Network. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/burying-the-dead-in-wwii-the-quartermaster-graves-registration-service/.

[2] “Ethical Dilemmas in a Time of Genocide.” Facing History and Ourselves. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/resistance-during-holocaust/ethical-dilemmas-time-genocide.

[3] Jewish Funeral and Burial.” Shiva Connect- Jewish Funeral and Burial. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://shivaconnect.com/jewish-funeral/jewish-funeral-and-burial/.

[4]”Treblinka: Revealing the Hidden Graves of the Holocaust.” BBC News. January 23, 2012. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16657363.

[5]The Shadows of Hiroshima: Haunting Imprints of People Killed by the Blast.” The Sun. April 05, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/155844/the-shadows-of-hiroshima-haunting-imprints-of-people-killed-by-the-blast/.

[6]”After the Bomb: Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Share Their Stories.” Time. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://time.com/after-the-bomb/.

[7]”Asian Visions of Authority.” Google Books. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=crJCNLyCnPYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA19&dq=japanese funeral culture hiroshima&ots=YpPGXbGVUR&sig=BisI7JchIaVqdcxa33OScz7lYP4#v=onepage&q=japanese funeral culture hiroshima&f=false.

[8]”3 Stories from Survivors of Hiroshima.” History Hit. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.historyhit.com/three-stories-from-survivors-of-hiroshima/.

[9]”The Righteous.” Google Books. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=1mQBeR9F0isC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=holocaustfunerals&ots=ctGnLTWtyo&sig=yNDf7Q_V5ZJ0gnaV6TyHwC4DXag#v=onepage&q=holocaust funerals&f=false.

[10]”Handbook of Death and Dying.” Google Books. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?id=Br51AwAAQBAJ&pg=PA656&dq=japanese funeral practices world war II&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjKh9mtkL_hAhWpnuAKHU3sAZwQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=japanese funeral practices world war II&f=false.

[11]Kornienko, I. V., M. Yu. Vakulenko, T. G. Faleeva, I. N. Ivanov, and N. V. Kononov. “Successful Genetic Identification of Remains of World War II Red Army Soldier.” Russian Journal of Genetics54, no. 4 (2018): 482-88. doi:10.1134/s1022795418040087.

[12]Morild, Inge, Stian S. Hamre, Rene Huel, and Thomas J. Parsons. “Identification of Missing Norwegian World War II Soldiers, in Karelia Russia.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 60, no. 4 (2015): 1104-110. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.12767.

[13]Smoltczyk, A. “Skeletons of The Past: Helping Europe’s War Dead Find A Final Resting Place.” Spiegel. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/bones-of-world-war-soldiers-still-being-excavated-across-europe-a-1029530.html.

[14]”Names Recovery Project.” Yadvashem.org. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.yadvashem.org/remembrance/names-recovery-project.html.

[15] Thejc.com. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/1200-attend-special-burial-service-for-the-remains-of-unknown-victims-of-the-holocaust-1.478826.

 

Post Member: Yingke Lu, Rob Brandon Lewis, Josef Alvarado

 

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

  1. The horrors of war described in this article are unimaginable, but even with the difficult topic, you all did a great job. I really enjoyed how you gave the perspective not just of American soldiers, but of the Jewish people in concentration camps and the Japanese people affected by the bombings. It is a great reflection of the fact that sometimes we focus on the suffering and deaths of our own country when there is more out there than just us. This article has some similarities to “The Forgotten, Unidentified, and Abandoned Dead,” and it was interesting to see the historical perspective provided by this article along with the futuristic perspective from the other. You asked great questions and answered them well. Great work.

  2. It is extremely interesting, and quite eerie, to read about the processes during WWII of identifying bodies and communicating the knowledge of death to family members. A further exploration of different cultural impact in terms of funerals might have explained the extent to which the war disrupted traditional practices, however, the post does well in going into depth about the Jewish culture specifically. The post’s focus on Nazi treatment of Jews and the ways in which their actions were disrespectful to the Jewish culture sensitively and successfully communicated the tragedy of the war. I also think it was a very well-thought out decision to compare the war’s impacts on funerals in the European theatre to those in the Pacific theatre, and the post does well to explore the impact on the Japanese specifically. It is interesting to consider how World War II has influenced modern grieving processes found among Americans, the Japanese, and the Jewish community.

  3. I thought the decision to compare Jewish and Japanese war deaths provided an interesting aspect to your piece. In the case of both the Jewish and the Japanese, these were civilians who were killed, not soldiers. Moreover, they were killed as accessories to promote bigger goals for World War II. These deaths weren’t necessarily “anticipated” in the same way a soldier’s death might have been, so no form of identifying the civilian bodies was established. Do you think it was because these people, the Jews and the Japanese, were civilians that they weren’t identified and properly celebrated? Or do you think it was because of other factors—maybe that there was an effort to keep identities hidden?

  4. I never considered that people had to identify all of the dead bodies they could. I do wonder what the psychological impacts this had on those who had to go through the process of trying to identify their brothers in arms had, and how that impacted them going forward after the war. I also thought you brought up an interesting point in bringing up the suffering of Japanese individuals after the bombing- that is a topic that is not brought up much in this subject. Overall this article reminded me of the “Forgotten, Unidentified, and Abandoned Dead,” which had a couple similarities in the broad theme and setup of the article itself. I thought it was incredibly well-written and an incredibly interesting topic to read about.

  5. This post connected with many of the themes of my own post on the Holocaust. Our post did not deal with many of the Jewish burial woes following the events of the Holocaust, so I found that section of particular interest. In conjunction the two readings highlight the atrocity of Nazi German action, but this article provides an appreciated contrast of ally atrocity. It raises the question of whether there is any moral high ground when analyzing the victors and losers of World War 2.

  6. Prior to reading this post, I had never fully considered the retrieval of bodies and their identification after a major world, especially the second world war which had taken the lives of millions. I particularly enjoyed learning about the various methods that the Graves Registration Service teams used to identify the body of a soldier that did not have his M1940 identification. The fact that they used clues such as birthmarks, laundry marks on clothing, and even serial numbers on watches is incredibly creative. Additionally, I find that the compare and contrast used when discussing civilian deaths of the Jews and the Japanese adds a unique element to the piece. It is important to recognize the effects of the war in refusing these people the right to a proper funeral respective to their cultures and this post did just that. Well-written and analytical.

  7. Gabrielle Geiger

    April 24, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Much like the topic of death, war is a conversation many are sensitive too. Which means that the ethical dilemmas that arise in war, are hard to for many to discuss. I really enjoyed your information on the Graves Registration Service, as this is a unit that I was unaware existed. I think that it is interesting but also sad that there are so many different ways that this team has to be prepared to identify bodies of fallen soldiers whether it be through their tags, letters, or distinguishing features. I hear a lot about fallen soldiers being brought home for burials, so it is disappointing that in WWII there were so many that were not returned home to their families. I hope that the recognition of WWII victim’s identities continues to progress, and their families get the closure they deserve.

  8. Madison Bencini

    April 24, 2019 at 6:45 pm

    I think your post brings to light a topic that is not discussed often enough in the aftermath of devastation such as what occurred during World War II. Your comparison of Japanese and Jewish burial rites proved to be an insightful comparison as to the rights of those who are killed in the crossfire of warfare. The section about the burial rites of victims of the Holocaust emphasizes the level of human indecency that was inflicted by Nazi Germany. The specific cultural practices of funerals are given special consideration to those who participated in the war, but neglected for the innocent victims who were caught in the middle. I think that this facet of war is neglected within the media and teachings today.

  9. It’s quite sad to think about World War II and just how great the adverse effects were, and continue to be as the world now has to deal with moving past the “liminality” of these unidentified persons. I think it is especially important to not forget those who cannot be identified, since there is a great emphasis on war heroes and those who were able to be identified and commemoralized, and your posting did just that. I enjoyed that there was analysis of both the Jewish and Japanese aspect, and while their parts in the war are very different, they are now united in this issue of honoring their dead post-war. I found the scientific explanation of some of the methods used for identification to be striking, because some of the methods used (like DNA testing, anthropological assessment) to be just like what is used in today’s Medicolegal Death Investigation System, which my pod researched. It was very interesting to see that these are similar. One question I have is that while a lot of this posting was focused on means of identification among soldiers, how was this done for the many civilians who were killed?

  10. Fighting for freedom is something that many men would and have given their lives for. My great uncle fought in WWII and he ended up losing his life. His mother received a telegram stating that he was MIA and that his plane had gone down into the ocean. His remains were never found. I think that it is very important for the identification of men that are killed in action to be made and I also thought it was interesting how you tied the Japanese and Jewish cultures and their views on funerals to their involvement in WWII as well. My question is how did they find a way to identify the dead soldiers and respect them in a way that was approved by the families.

  11. This was a fascinating read. It is not often that Americans consider or discuss the cultural needs of those affected by our military effort, or those in other countries affected by war. To know that burial rights were completely thrown to the wayside due to the number of bodies is unnerving. Some organizations discussed, Righteous Among Nations and the Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project, were interesting to read as a coping mechanisms and ways that people could come together over an atrocity in order to give proper burials and rights back to families.

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