Cemeteries in Normandy: How We Remember Those Who Gave the Ultimate Sacrifice

The next stop in our journey was a little town named Bayeux, where we visited sites corresponding to the invasion of Normandy, including Utah and Omaha Beaches. While these sites were interesting, I found how each nation buried its dead to be the most compelling and emotion provoking aspect of Normandy.

How the cemeteries addressed how to bury those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the Normandy invasions are vastly different. The difference between the Allies buried on French soil versus the burial of the enemy fallen on Allied ground is notable. However, each cemetery had the goal of remembering the lives that were lost. Coincidentally, it rained at every cemetery I visited, which felt like I was experiencing the weeping of those who lost their son, husband, or father in war – making me reflect and be thankful for what I have and those who have served.

The first cemetery we visited was the Commonwealth Cemetery in Bayeux. Unlike the other cemeteries, this cemetery housed thousands of British graves and Soviet, Polish, and other Allies’ graves. The cemetery also housed a few hundred German graves, which was shocking to me.

I thought the Commonwealth Cemetery portrayed a warm feeling. White marble headstones were personalized with different scriptures and quotes. Flowers adorned the front of the headstones, adding vibrance and a feeling of the resilience of those who continued without them. The lack of uniformity made me feel like I was looking at individuals with different personalities and lives. The layout of the cemetery, being in ranks, did offer a sense of camaraderie. Although they were individuals, they stood and fell together, fighting for their country.

This cemetery was also the first on my trip to answer the question of how we should commemorate enemy dead. German graves were lined with somber stone headstones with a name, the German symbol, and not an ounce of personality. While there were flowers on these graves, it is apparent in the material alone as to whose graves were to receive more dignity – the victors.

The rows of graves at the British Cemetery.

The German Cemetery at La Cambe continues to answer the question of commemoration of Wehrmacht dead but in terms of an entire cemetery. Being buried in allied land, the cemetery designers had to be careful not to memorialize Nazism but to give a resting ground to fellow humans – however, elements of this cemetery air on the controversial side as the goal is to not associate religion with the beliefs of the Nazi Party and Hitler. Two elements that stick out as possible associations with Christianity are the sets of five crosses in a row and the statues of a man and woman at the top of a hill. The architects argued that the crosses are not Christian but rather German, and the statues on the hill, which look like Mary and Joseph, and rather German parents grieving for their lost sons.

Aside from the controversy, this cemetery did a great job meeting the fine line between glory and disrespect in a solemn atmosphere. While not glorifying the Germans, the cemetery offered a respectful resting ground for those who had lost their lives for a cause in which they may or may not have believed. Something I found surprising was that the graves were two or more people deep. This takes out the space to add any additional information to the headstones, removing the sense of individualism.


The German Cemetery with sets of five German crosses lining the grounds.

The last cemetery we visited was the American Military Cemetery in Coleville sur Mer, established and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Growing up as an Army Brat, I have attended my fair share of military funeral ceremonies and cemeteries. The American Cemetery in Normandy exudes the same general feeling of those in the United States: heroism and glory to the fallen. The cemetery was rather extravagant, with red paths into fields of green and perfect formations of pure white marble headstones. Row after row, column after column, great pride is taken into the cemetery’s upkeep. I mentioned to one of my classmates that I almost forgot that I was in France due to the surroundings making me feel as if I were home.

Compared to the previous cemeteries, the American Cemetery portrays the feeling of bravery as a giant bronze statue, “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves,” overlooks the thousands of graves, representing the unconquerable spirit of the men who served. The purity of these young men is displayed through the cleanliness of the cemetery and the crisp white accents. Comradery is displayed through the perfect ranks of graves and the placing of dozens of brothers and sons and fathers together. It meant a lot to me that I could connect with those buried as I got to place a flag on a Buckeye who was in the 101st Airborne Division, the same unit in which my father served.

After seeing the lines of graves and hearing of the twins (I am a twin, so this resonated with me) who enlisted, died, and were buried together, the American Cemetery put the losses we amassed during the war into perspective. Unfortunately, the young men had lives ahead of them and did not make it past Normandy. As a result, I reflected on those in my life and how thankful I am for their service and company, knowing that tomorrow is uncertain.

The “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” statue at the American Cemetery.

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