Mass Death, Science and Medicine: Handling the Corpses of War in Modern Europe (1850-1960)

Research project funded by the SNSF (100011_220032)

Principal Investigator: Taline Garibian
Collaborators: Victoria Abrahamyan & Linda Maria Ratschiller Nasim
Project’s Partners: Erica Charters (University of Oxford) & Benoit Pouget (Sciences Po Aix)


Légende photo et vignette:
San Martino della Battaglia. The Ossario, where the bones of 6,000 fallen soldiers of the battle of Solferino are housed, Nadia Shira Cohen ©ICRC


In times of disaster, most normal services are likely to fail, adding distress to the crisis. This is often the case for the management of corpses in cases of mass death events. During wars, dead bodies cannot be managed by the usual funeral services. The violence of the fighting, as well as the operational requirements, and the very state of the corpses often make it difficult to apply appropriate mortuary procedures and result in hasty burials, if any. These practices, which often prevent later localization and identification, profoundly affect the mourning of relatives. Over the last two centuries and the ‘funerary transition’, bodies of the deceased, and their proper handling have indeed become a major element of the grieving process in Western Europe. At the same time, death has undergone a process of medicalization, and the presence of health professionals at the side of the dying and the corpses intensified. The development of hygienic theories contributed to making corpses a focus of medicine, and also a source of fear related to epidemics – which can also lead to tension when it comes to dead bodies management. The generalization of the use of forensic medicine after mass death events since the 1980s can be seen as the latest step in this medicalization. However, while forensic practices from the 1980s onwards have been the subject of intense analysis and reflection, the medical practices that preceded them are much less well known.

This is precisely the scope and ambition of this research, which plans to look at the development of the management of corpses in times of masse violence over a long period of time, starting with the Crimean war in the 1850s and ending with the decades following WWII. It argues that the medicalisation of death had a huge impact on the handling of corpses en masse and intends to clarify the role played by science and medicine in the shaping of corpses’ management policies. By examining the scientific knowledge, practices, and techniques developed on and off the battlefields, this project will thus shed light on the origins and the development of forensics practices. Second, it will assess the effects of medical knowledge on the attitude towards death and mourning and provide a contribution to the study of the memorial tensions raised by corpses and their handling. This project is divided into three areas of research which correspond to three sub-periods: (1) the medicalization of death on the battlefields (1850-1914), (2) the birth of war forensics (1914-1939), and (3) corpses and mass graves as sites of investigations (1939-1960).
This project aims to contribute to the current discussion among professionals from different backgrounds (i.e., forensic scientists, anthropologists, humanitarian stakeholders) on the management of corpses en masse.