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The Empire of the Dead: British Burial Abroad and the Formation of National Identity


This dissertation concerns the politics, aesthetics, and meanings of the British dead around the world. It argues that caring for the dead articulated views of the British Empire and Britain's standing in the world as well as how the British people understood their nation and their own identities within and outside of national communities. Broadly speaking this history tells a story of the state's increasing involvement in one of the most deeply personal, and traditionally familial, activities; but it is also an account of how the living came to define themselves through the care of the dead. Initially, in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, this took the form of establishing specifically British spaces for civilians who died away from home. Sometimes these distinct burial grounds came about as a way to deal with the problem of confessional difference and became distinctly Protestant while in other cases they reflected the desires of British merchants to fashion themselves as permanent imperial rulers. During the nineteenth century, the state took an increasingly active role in the establishment and operation of these spaces through the professionalization of the Consular Service and the cemeteries themselves became a synecdoche for British liberalism. Somewhat unexpectedly, considering the vast historiography on modern war commemoration and nationalism, the British government spent money and attention on caring for civilians who died overseas chronologically earlier than it concerned itself with dead soldiers. Nevertheless, during the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the Great War the idea that those who fell in battle deserved decent burial gained widespread resonance. The Crimean War of 1853-6 marked a turning point when for the first time most British soldiers received marked graves through the individual efforts of their comrades and manifesting a religiously inspired humanization of common soldiers. These burial grounds only became understood as "national cemeteries" and the government's responsibility after the war following widespread reports of their desecration and neglect. The British public increasingly understood providing Christian burial and marking soldiers graves, even if they died far from home, as a moral imperative for the army, the government, and civil society. During the Great War with the establishment in 1917 of a permanent commemoration bureaucracy, the Imperial War Graves Commission, caring for dead soldiers became infused with the political ideology of empire. The global network of sacred spaces created by the Commission following both world wars manifest not only a desire to care for the dead but also a way of using them to represent a united and victorious imperial polity. This commemoration style itself became untenable during decolonization as the British Empire itself disintegrated. The dead took on new meanings for the living in the late twentieth century even as those of the past as well as the spaces for them remained associated with empire and nation.

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