War and Remembrance: An Examination of Cemeteries and Collective Memory

Guiding Question:

How do cemeteries shape our collective remembrance of war and fallen heroes?


Using documents and photographs from the American Battle Monuments Commission, students will work in cooperative groups to examine design elements of American military cemeteries from World War I and World War II in order to ascertain their implied messages, to identify the differences in their messages, and to determine their role in how wars are remembered.


Historical Context

After World War I, the American government realized the need to establish control over the commemoration of American armed forces’ fallen overseas. In 1923, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that established the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which created a protocol for the construction of monuments and memorial chapels in eight permanent military cemeteries. In 1934, the responsibility for management and maintenance of those cemeteries shifted from the War Department to the ABMC. After World War II, ABMC also assumed responsibility for the permanent interment of fallen service members whose families chose to have buried in an American military cemetery on foreign soil. Today, ABMC operates 26 American cemeteries that inter the remains of nearly 124,000 American war dead, including 30,973 from World War I and 92,958 from World War II. Over 94,000 American servicemen and women who were missing in action, lost, or buried at sea during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War are commemorated on Tablets of the Missing.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Analyze design characteristics of American military cemeteries overseas; and
  • Articulate and support a reasoned response concerning the influence of cemetery design on collective remembrance of war and war dead.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Connections to C3 Framework

D2.His.4.9-12 Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

D2.His.5.9-12 Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.


  • Cemetery Source Packet
  • Cemetery Analysis Worksheet
  • Computer with projector and internet capability to show video clip
  • Chalkboard or white board
  • Packets of three different colored sticky notes (one of each color for each student)
  • Butcher paper
  • Assorted colored markers
  • Scissors
  • Masking tape
  • Online timer

Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Memories of World War I and World War II (15 minutes)

  • Ask students to independently brainstorm three adjectives that describe World War I and three adjectives that describe World War II.
    • Ask students to compare their lists with a partner and to add to their own lists.
    • Share out adjectives in the whole class setting and list them on the board.
    • Explain to students that the adjectives on the board represent our collective memory of each event. Collective memory involves our perceptions of the past, which can evolve over time, and be shaped by many factors, including how the events in consideration have been memorialized.

Activity Two: Cemetery Design Analysis: Commemoration and Memory (45-60 minutes)

  • Explain to students that they will be examining the design of American overseas World War I and World War II cemeteries to determine their influence on our collective memory of those two events.
  • Show the video clip, American War Cemeteries in Europe, (3:17) from Stars and Stripes, to introduce students to American overseas military cemeteries under the management of the American Battle Monuments Commission. This clip provides an overview of the basic design elements of the cemeteries and their purpose, which must be understood for the lesson activity. 
  • Divide the class into small groups of three to five students each to engage in collaborative cemetery design analysis.
    • Distribute one Cemetery Source Materials Packet to each group and one Cemetery Analysis Worksheet to each student.
    • Instruct students to follow the directions on the worksheet to guide them through the process of examining and analyzing cemetery maps, photographs, and inscriptions found in the Cemetery Source Materials Packet to help them answer the lesson’s essential question and related sub-questions:
      • How do cemeteries shape our collective remembrance of war and war dead?
      • In what ways do World War I and World War II cemeteries promote a similar message about war and the fallen?
      • In what ways do World War I and World War II cemeteries promote different messages about war and fallen?
    • Tell students that once their group has analyzed all the source materials, each person should independently respond to the reflection questions on the last page of the Cemetery Analysis Worksheet using the indicated color of sticky notes for their response. Tell students where to submit in their sticky notes when they are completed.
  • Monitor and prompt students as they engage in collaborative inquiry.

Assessment Materials

Big Paper, Silent Conversation Assessment Strategy

  • Organize the room prior to the class period by preparing as many pieces of butcher paper as there are cooperative groups in each class. Place one or more sticky notes on each piece of butcher paper with the students’ ideas related to the lesson’s essential questions. The groups can respond, challenge, and elaborate on the ideas during the activity.
  • Organize assorted colored markers into bundles with numbers equal to the number of students in each group so that each person in a single group has the same colored marker, but no group has the same colored marker as another group (i.e. All members of group one have blue markers, while all members of group two have red markers, etc.).
  • Cut one large piece of butcher paper for each group. Attach each piece of butcher paper to the wall around the room or place on tables throughout the room so that each group will have its own designated area to work.
  • Tell students that they will be engaging in a cooperative, silent discussion centered around student responses to the lesson’s essential questions concerning cemetery design and collective memory. Each group will have five minutes at their first assigned station and three minutes at each additional station to write individual responses to the ideas put forth, to add supporting evidence that deepens the arguments being made, or to raise questions concerning the ideas. Tell students that it is permissible to draw lines out from ideas to connect them, to respond to someone else’s response, and to even add pictures to make a point if appropriate. All of this is done without talking to others around them.
  • Instruct students to organize into their cemetery design cooperative groups and move to the area of the room for their first station with their marker.
  • Project an online timer on the screen and announce when students need to rotate to their next station. Tell students to return to their seats when all stations have been finished.
  • Lead students in a full class debriefing session of the activity and their learning. You may ask students to comment specifically about ideas they put on the butcher paper. Finally, call on students to respond to the debriefing questions:
    • How have your ideas concerning remembrance of wars and the fallen changed? Why?
    • What were your biggest takeaways from this activity and how will you apply them to your study of history as you move forward?

Methods for Extension


  • Teachers can adapt the lesson to younger students and those with special needs by lessening the number of sources analyzed during the main portion of the lesson.
  • Teachers with time constraints can shorten the lesson by skipping the silent conversation portion of the assessment and jumping right to the whole group debrief.


Return to Activity

Secondary Sources

Other Sources