Word of The Month: Cenotaph

David Zapatka

I’m writing this column as I’m departing from Hiroshima, Japan on the cruise ship Insignia, part of the Oceania fleet. Having just visited the Atomic Bomb Dome and seeing the memorials to all those who lost their lives, I felt somber and my throat was constricted with the flood of emotions coursing through my body. I was standing in front of a cenotaph memorializing the tens of thousands of people who died then another cenotaph memorializing the children who perished. Reflecting back on this moment, I thought about the many cenotaphs around the world dedicated to those who lost their lives in wars.

Cenotaph: noun ceno·taph | ˈse-nə-ˌtaf, -ˌtäf

1. a tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere. 2. a special structure or statue built to remind people of a dead person who is buried somewhere else especially a structure built to honor the people who were killed in a war.

Origin and etymology: French cénotaphe, from Latin cenotaphium, from Greek kenotaphion, from kenos empty + taphos tomb.

First Known Use: 1587.

Examples of cenotaph used in a sentence:

The good folks of the Town of Rhine raised $1,000 in 1867 for the cenotaph. — Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Sheboygan County community remembers its Civil War dead 150 years after it erected memorial,” May 28, 2018.

The cenotaph is surrounded by four flaming torches that are kept constantly lit. — Smithsonian, “World War I Cemeteries & Memorials Around the World,” May 26, 2017.

Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is peculiarly positioned west of the central axis, throwing off the equilibrium. — Lisa Cheng, Smithsonian, “Eight Secrets of the Taj Mahal,” February 14, 2017.

Cenotaphs were common in the ancient world, with many built in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and across Northern Europe. In the United States, a cenotaph in Yale University’s Hewitt Quad (or Beinecke Plaza) honors men of Yale who died in battle. The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial in Dallas is often described as a cenotaph. A cenotaph for the defenders of the Battle of the Alamo (March, 1836) stands in front of the Alamo mission chapel in San Antonio, Texas. The cenotaph is empty because the remains of the fallen were cremated.

Most notable cenotaphs commemorate individuals buried elsewhere but many cenotaphs pay tribute to people whose remains have never been located, particularly those lost at sea. Some such cenotaphs are dedicated to victims of the Titanic whose bodies were not recovered after the sinking.

Cenotaph is used in Henry Ellison’s 1833 poem, Scientific Theories: O Science! … “A cenotaph for Man’s lost Soul provide!”

In the Internet age, virtual cenotaphs are common in the game World of Warcraft.

What cenotaphs are you familiar with and what emotions swell within you when you see them? Please submit your experiences, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to dzapatka@wbhsi.net.