Megadeaths: Individual Reactions and Social Responses to Massive Loss of Life

Jerome Rosenberg & Dennis L Peck. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Examples of events that have led to massive loss of life, or megadeaths, abound. Such catastrophes include natural as well as human-made tragedies, such as epidemics, air and sea disasters, mining disasters, fires, cyclones, droughts, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, wars, and campaigns of genocide. All of these kinds of disasters are relevant to any discussion of megadeaths, and in the following sections we provide examples of each. In addition to examining the types of events that lead to the phenomenon of megadeath, we attempt to demonstrate the magnitude of the consequences of megadeath that result from community responses to both natural and human-made disasters (that is, the actions of humans directed against humans that cause deaths in large numbers).

Community Disasters

Although events such as the Great Fire of London in 1666, the April 16, 1845, fire that took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Great Chicago Fire of October 8-10, 1871, pale in comparison to many of the events we review in the sections to follow, these tragedies are no less significant in terms of loss of life and property. The Great Fire of London was a 5-day ordeal during which an area of more than 436 acres was completely destroyed; the fire consumed 87 churches and 13,200 houses. Although it is likely that many lives were lost, only six known dead were reported. As minimal as the loss of life may have been, however, this destructive fire had far-reaching financial consequences for the residents of London; as a result of the fire, thousands of individuals experienced financial ruin, and many of them came to be incarcerated in debtors’ prisons.

The 1845 Pittsburgh fire destroyed approximately onefourth of that city. The source of the fire was a single frame building, but within 5 hours, 56-60 acres of the city were inundated. Of the 1,200 buildings destroyed, 700 were dwellings. The other 500 included a variety of businesses, factories, professional offices, and cultural and educational facilities.

Chicago grew in a short period of time from a small trading outpost to a city of approximately 330,000 people. When the devastating fire occurred in 1871, Chicago was the fourth-largest city in the United States. Much of the city proper was destroyed in the fire, and it has been estimated that 250 to 300 persons died. The leaders and residents of Chicago responded to the tragedy of the fire much as had other communities that had faced similar experiences: They set out to rebuild the city.

On August 27, 1883, a volcanic eruption on the island of Krakatoa, located between Sumatra and Java, caused a 120-foot tidal wave that covered the coastal areas of Java, killing at least 36,417 people and destroying 165 villages. The volcanic eruption caused extreme long-term damage to the environment as well, including a lowering of temperatures in the area. Temperatures did not return to normal levels until 5 years later.

On May 31, 1889, the small industrial city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was overwhelmed by disaster when a wall of water 35-40 feet high, let loose by the failure of the South Fork Dam located 14 miles away, crashed down upon the city. Traveling at more than 40 miles per hour, the floodwaters approached the city within 57 minutes after the dam break was noted, sending 20 million tons of water downstream toward Johnstown. Within less than 10 minutes, 4 square miles of the Johnstown downtown area was destroyed; within a matter of a few hours of the dam break, 2,209 people died, including 99 whole families, 396 children under the age of 10, and 777 unidentified victims. Some 1,600 homes were lost, and 280 businesses were destroyed.

On September 8, 1900, Galveston, Texas, experienced a hurricane that is recorded as one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. mainland. The winds and rising floodwaters were responsible for the loss of approximately 8,000 lives.

One of the most famous tragedies involving massive loss of life is the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic. On April 14, 1912, only 5 days after commencing her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City with 2,227 passengers and crew aboard, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. Only 705 people survived; the loss of life was 1,522. The tragic loss of so many lives on the Titanic, a ship that had been considered unsinkable, had and continues to have long-term effects on the global community.

In 1957, the area around Chelyabinsk, Russia, was exposed to a catastrophic amount of radiation when an atomic weapons complex built during the late 1940s experienced a malfunction and a radioactive waste containment unit exploded. Untold thousands of people have been affected by the radioactive fallout from this accident.

In 1984, the worst industrial disaster in history occurred when a Union Carbide plant making pesticides in Bhopal, India, released toxic methyl isocyanate gas into the air. The total damage attributable to this event may never be determined, but on November 16, 1990, the state government of Madhya Pradesh submitted a compensation claim to the Supreme Court of India on behalf of the families of 3,828 dead victims, 40 victims with permanent total disability, 2,680 persons with permanent partial disability, 1,313 individuals who suffered temporary disability from permanent injury, 7,172 people with temporary disability, 18,922 persons with permanent injury with no disability, and 173,382 persons with temporary injury but with no disability.

Megadeath events such as those noted above affect social understandings of death and dying as well as the grief, bereavement, and mourning processes, as these are shaped by death experiences and reactions at both individual and societal levels. Both individuals and societies are clearly affected by the loss of life in numbers so large as to be beyond the scope of normal comprehension. Megadeaths present countless problems for individuals and societies alike as they attempt to find adequate social responses to such great loss of life and the aftereffects of tragedy. Normative responses seem inadequate for dealing with such losses.

Inhumanity to Humankind

When death is expected, the anticipated event sets the dynamics for how people respond. Although grief and mourning represent basic, normal human responses, on occasion people are confronted with events that produce such great loss that individual grief and mourning must give way to participation in some collective form of mourning. Clearly, natural disasters are the results of random acts of nature over which humans can exercise little if any control. Human-made disasters, in contrast, such as war and genocide, challenge the human ability to cope.

During World War I (1913-18), for example, it is estimated that approximately 8.5 million military casualties and millions more civilian deaths occurred. During World War II, the military death toll was 20 million; in total, more than 50 million people, including the victims of wartime atrocities, died. The Nazi Holocaust of this period represents an extraordinary example of genocide that led to the demise of more than 6 million Jews and approximately 5 million more deaths among other portions of the civilian population, including political dissidents, homosexuals (an estimated 50,000 to 500,000), Roma Gypsies (an estimated 400,000), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (an estimated 2,500 to 5,000). In addition, 150,000 German citizens were identified by their own government as “life not worthy of life” and were exterminated (Friedlander 1995:14).

It is estimated that between 800,000 and 1 million people died during the Armenian genocide of 1915. In Russia during the 1930s, 20 million victims are thought to have died during the Stalinist reign of terror. In 1994, between 800,000 and 1 million persons, mainly Tutsis, were killed during the Rwandan war of genocide, and more than 3 million people are estimated to have died during the Cambodian genocide period of the 1970s.

In East Timor during the period 1975-99, an estimated 200,000 Catholics were victimized in a Muslim purge initiated by the Indonesian army. In Bosnia from 1995 to 1999 Serbian Orthodox Christians victimized 200,000 Muslims in a government-sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing. Even more recent examples of genocide occurred in Kosovo during 1998-99 and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo beginning in 1997 to the present. The number of Muslims killed in Kosovo is yet unknown; the Serbian Orthodox Christians displaced 400,000 Muslims. In the Congo, the government army and rebels have killed an estimated 1.7 million Congolese citizens.

Responses to Megadeath and the Impact Ratio

Events such as those described above place great demands on the resources of individuals, communities, and nations as they are called upon to cope with the enormity of this kind of loss. The effort to find meaning is an important component in individuals’ attempts to locate appropriate responses to such loss of human life. Victor Frankl (1983), reflecting on his experiences during the Holocaust, has written of the search for the meaning of life and death under conditions of extreme depravation. Such meaning is elusive, but the search for meaning may nonetheless be as important as the conclusions that are reached. A variety of responses develop at the individual psychological level, prompted by anger, sorrow, grief, bitterness, and hate; at the societal level, responses may include the need to exact a form of retribution on behalf of the community. This effort also includes identifying appropriate methods by which to memorialize the losses associated with the tragic event. Such memorials can serve to symbolize the collective conscience of a nation as well as the individual feelings of survivors.

The nature and the cause of death as well as certain characteristics of the deceased inform our responses to death. That is, when someone dies, we give special consideration to the age of the person who died, the conditions under which the death occurred, the intent or randomness of the death, our ability to assess responsibility and accountability for the death, the social and political climate under which the death occurred, and our relationship to the person who died. Individual relationships and shared membership in some larger entity appear to be critical to the search for an appropriate response. It is also important whether the cause of death is an intrinsic aspect of the life cycle (such as growing old), a disease, an accident, or an intentional or unintentional act stemming from human malice or negligence. When death results from causes beyond human control, we still seek to identify causal and explanatory factors that serve our purpose. During the Middle Ages, for example, it was not uncommon for leaders of the Church to blame the spread of bubonic plague on heretical influences; they perceived the plague to be a supernatural punishment meted out by a sacred force.

Although the term megadeaths is usually used to refer to large numbers of deaths, it is important to recognize that the term may also be applied when the numbers of lives lost are relatively small but they represent a significant proportion of the population at risk. This concept, which Rossi and Wright (1981) call the “impact ratio” (the ratio of loss to available resources), represents an important dimension for understanding the extent of the trauma that persons and communities experience during and in the aftermath of disaster. As Robert Bolin (1985) notes, the impact ratio of a disaster is the proportion of those affected in the community compared to the proportion not affected. When a disaster affects large numbers of people and they experience the effects of the disaster for a long time, the impact ratio is large. Kai Erikson (1976) refers to this phenomenon as a “collective trauma” because of the destruction and loss of communality it entails. Identification with the tragic events and individual and collective perceptions of those events are crucial elements in human responses to megadeaths. How do humans cope with tragedy of such great magnitude? We evaluate this issue below within the context of the body of knowledge that has been generated to give meaning to the social psychology of megadeath.

Psychosocial Responses to Disaster

The literature on the psychosocial aspects of individual and collective human reactions to disastrous events of any magnitude is too large to allow us to provide an adequate overview in this chapter. However, we can demonstrate the significance such events have in the lives of those who survive them by selectively drawing on a small portion of this rich body of knowledge. In this section we offer a narrow but significant example in the form of a clinical case study of community reaction to one particular disaster. This case provides some insights that can help us to understand human responses to large-scale tragedy, the impact ratio, and megadeath.

The flooding disaster that occurred in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, in February 1972 is a classic example of an event with a high impact ratio. After days of rainfall, the entire Buffalo Creek area was devastated by rushing floodwaters within a short period when an artificial dam became saturated and gave way; the dam had been formed by the deposit of coal waste into a mountain stream. The result of this flooding was tragic in terms of life and property lost (125 people died and 5,000 were left homeless), but the secondary consequences for the survivors added to their losses. Lifton and Olson (1976) describe five survival patterns exhibited by Buffalo Creek residents in the aftermath of the disaster: (a) death imprint (memories and images of the disaster as these were associated with death) and death anxiety, (b) death guilt (the sense of selfcondemnation over having survived while others died), (c) psychic numbing (a diminished capacity to feel anything), (d) impaired human relationships (conflict over need or nurturing and suspicion of others), and (e) search for the significance surrounding the disaster (the attempt to provide form to and explanation for the near-death disaster experience).

The Buffalo Creek episode is also an example of a case in which corporate negligence led to unnatural disaster. Bolin (1985) asserts that the effects of this event should be considered within the context of a human-made disaster. The secondary effects of the flooding on the members of the Buffalo Creek community, which was irreparably destroyed, are described in legal terms as “psychic impairment.” The manifestations of this impairment, as identified above, were the result of what Lifton and Olson (1976:2) refer to as “indelible images” imprinted in the memories of primary and secondary victim survivors. Such victims, according to Bolin, either directly or indirectly experienced physical, material, and personal losses from the disaster. The unnatural disaster caused by human error at Buffalo Creek became, in the minds of some survivors, a natural event as fearful dreams and thoughts and anxiety became part of their normal reality. Perceptions of failure attributed to abortive efforts to save others permeated the thoughts of survivors, as did anger directed toward the coal mining company that deposited its waste in that mountain stream and also was the primary employer of Buffalo Creek residents.

Psychological manifestations such as those described above are usually expected to disappear within a 6-month period following disastrous events, especially if victims have support systems available, but when such an event has a high impact ratio, survivors can have numerous additional problems in living and negative psychological effects (Bolin 1985). According to Lifton and Olson’s (1976) clinical analysis, the survivors at Buffalo Creek manifested many negative postdisaster symptoms, including apathy, social withdrawal, and depression. Along with an almost total constriction in their living patterns, many Buffalo Creek victims exhibited symptoms characteristic of a psychological “disaster syndrome” in which they continued, over the long term, to exist in the stunned state they experienced at the time of the flood. Such a numbing condition lowers an individual’s level of energy, diminishes emotional feelings toward others, induces physical problems, and reduces memory capacity. As people in this state experience grieving, their once positive and constructive relationships become impaired. The need for mutual support remains high, but the process of everyday living becomes burdensome. Personal feelings are easily bruised, and anger and suspicion permeate relationships at all levels; often, the perceptions survivors hold of others become manifested through anger. Life is burdensome and generally less than satisfactory.

As noted above, the fifth type of survival pattern that Lifton and Olson (1976) describe is a condition that encompasses the individual’s struggle to find significance in or meaning for the disaster. This struggle for definition should not be underestimated, for unless survivors can find acceptable explanations that give significance and meaning to the disaster, they are unlikely to be able to find similar significance and meaning for living. Without psychological resolution of the aftereffects of disaster, victims are, in Lifton and Olson’s words, “locked in their death anxiety, survivor guilt, numbing … [with] impaired human relationships, bound to the disaster itself and to its destructive psychological influences” (p. 8). In the current psychosocial vernacular of the mental health profession, the survivors of the Buffalo Creek disaster may be said to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their individual-level reactions to this high-impact-ratio event.

War: The Ultimate Megadeath Event

Ground combat, the traditional method used when one military force conducts aggressive initiatives against another, often results in megadeaths. Modern warfare, popularized by Napoleon, reflects the ability of the human species to inflict almost incomprehensible damage that results in the deaths of very large numbers of people. During World War I, for example, during the battle of the Somme, the Allied armies incurred more than 57,000 casualties, including 19,240 deaths among the British forces. The German army is estimated to have sustained more than 6,000 casualties, either killed or wounded, in this same battle (Middlebrook 1971:245).

Despite the magnitude of such numbers, perhaps the greatest loss of life attributed to military battle in modern history was sustained by the German Sixth Army during and in the aftermath of the battle of Stalingrad during World War II. In late 1941, the rapid advance of the German army led to the occupation of Stalingrad. However, their success over the retreating Russian defenders also had major negative consequences for the Germans, for the German army’s support components were unable to keep pace and maintain an adequate supply line. The Russian army later surrounded Stalingrad, besieging the Germans. Hitler ordered his troops to dig in and defend Stalingrad, to fight to the last man and the last bullet. The Germans were able to evacuate by air only 25,000 wounded and critical specialist troops out of the 270,000 men who made up the Sixth Army. Depleted of food, medical supplies, and ammunition, the remnants of the surrounded German force surrendered to the Russians on February 2, 1943. Only 120,000 men survived to be taken prisoner. At the end of hostilities in 1945, a mere 5,000 German prisoners of war out of the original Stalingrad forces had survived to be sent home to Germany (Beevor 1998).

Although millions of military personnel and innocent civilians perished during World II, a limited number of wartime air raids produced what might be considered the most horrifying megadeaths of the war. Martin Middlebrook (1981:28) reports, for example, that 51,509 British civilians were killed as a result of German bombing raids conducted in the skies of the United Kingdom. Even more devastating were the combined military initiatives conducted by American and British bombers over Hamburg, Germany. During a period that lasted several days, the incendiary bombs used during the Hamburg raid created a firestorm that caused the deaths of approximately 45,000 civilians; some estimates range as high as 100,000 deaths (Caidin 1960:282; Middlebrook 1981:28).

The air war conducted over Japan during 1944-45 resulted in even higher death tolls. According to Kerr (1991:273), 112,000 deaths are thought to have occurred as the result of incendiary bomb air raids on six Japanese cities: Kawasaki, Kobe, Nagoya, Osaka, Tokyo, and Yokohama. Later, on August 5 and August 9, 1945, respectively, the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. Air Force on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the deaths of 83,000 civilians (70,000 in Hiroshima, 13,000 in Nagasaki; Kerr 1991:271, 273). This megadeath toll led to the surrender of the Japanese forces.

Survivors of War

Robert Bolin (1985) identifies war as a prime example of human-made disaster, and Max Clelland (1982) argues that a war does not end when the shooting ceases. Rather, wars live on in the daily experiences of survivors and their dependents as well as in the collective memories of entire nations. There would seem to be little question that the greatest numbers of deaths occur under conditions of war and that these deaths are, by their very nature, intentional. This intentionality makes all those involved, from combatants to the civilians on the home front, an immediate part of the process and, in the aftermath of war, survivors.

The framing element for all individual reactions and social responses to megadeath is an important concept for survivors, whether at the individual or the collective level. Robert Lifton (1980) defines a survivor as one who has encountered, been exposed to, or witnessed death and has remained alive. This definition is broad enough to include, in the case of war, the perception of a nation that has participated in combat as a survivor, in the sense of national identity. Whatever forms individuals’ and nations’ responses to the massive losses of war may take, they are only for the living, those who identify as survivors. The dead do not know or care how they are remembered, yet it is their loss that demands responses from the living. Survivors need to find ways to cope with their grief and memories, somehow justify their losses, and attempt to bring closure to their experience of loss.

Individual and public responses to the massive losses that come with war take many forms and involve language, physical entities, and commemorations. The greater the scope of the loss, the more extensive, numerous, and meaningful the individual and collective responses will be. This reality has a long history, as Schwartz notes:

Primitive societies intuitively knew the value of cultural ceremonies that mark the end of hostilities. Rites of passage were provided for the soldiers and the society to make the transition from the regression of combat to the structure of integrated living. These rituals acknowledged and sanctioned the otherwise forbidden acts of war. They thanked the soldier for his protection, forgave him his crimes and welcomed him back to life. (Quoted in DeSpelder and Strickland 1999:484)

In contemporary society, we recognize that memorials to and commemorations of the dead are essential for effectively creating a sense of closure. Most memorials dedicated to those lost in war express national and/or religious symbols that convey the real or perceived magnitude of the loss and also serve to reify the collective memories and bereavement of the survivors. As John Davies (1993) notes, the symbolic possibilities for war memorials are wide-ranging and may take iconographic, epigraphic, and topographical form. He also observes that war memorials are probably the most widespread kinds of monuments found among the European and American statuary that exists in national capitals, state capitals, small towns, and anywhere else people gather to remember and, as a community-sponsored obligation of survivorship, to honor the dead.

Since 1775, Americans have participated and lost their lives in a number of wars of at least 5 years’ duration. The greatest loss of American life occurred during the American Civil War (1861-65), when more than 558,000 military casualties occurred. As Table 1 shows, with the exception of the first Gulf War, American military casualties have been high in every war in which the United States has been a participant. In responding to these losses, communities have created hundreds of memorials across the United States and around the world. All of these memorials embody the intentions expressed by General John Logan in 1868 in General Order No. 11, which established the Memorial Day holiday:

If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us. (Quoted in Merchant 1994)

The importance of collective survivorship and collective responsibility of commemoration can be seen at Arlington National Cemetery, where a sign near the visitors’ center reads as follows:


As Backer (1996) notes, we usually think of a shrine as a concrete object or a particular kind of building, but any public place that symbolizes dedication and commemoration can be a shrine. The collective sense of survivorship and the physical artifacts that symbolize our losses are representative of efforts not only to honor those who paid the ultimate price for freedom but to preserve a legacy of the past. Arlington National Cemetery is so conceived as a shrine, a place where people gather to honor both individuals and a concept memorialized in a sprawling landscape (Kammen 1993). Across the United States, memorials have been established to honor Americans who have died while in the service of their country; some of the groups honored include prisoners of war and those missing in action, victims of terrorism, war correspondents, and members of the armed forces lost in the Korean War, World Wars I and II, the first Persian Gulf War, and the Vietnam War, as well as in military operations in Somalia and El Salvador.

In addition to the many physical memorials that have been established to commemorate large losses of life, some special days have also been set aside for remembrance. Memorial Day and Veterans Day in the United States are two examples. Each such day has its own rules of observance, as set out for Memorial Day by General John Logan in General Order No. 11, issued on May 5, 1868:

Gather around these sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of springtime…. let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan. (Quoted in Merchant 1994)

This declaration acknowledges the social need for remembrance. On a Web site devoted to the history and observance of Memorial Day, Merchant (1994) lists the following appropriate ways of observing the day:

  • By visiting cemeteries and placing flags or flowers on the graves of our fallen heroes
  • By visiting memorials
  • By flying the U.S. flag at half-staff until noon
  • By participating in the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. to pause and think about the meaning of the day, and for “Taps” to be played
  • By renewing a pledge to aid widows, widowers, and orphans of our fallen dead, and to aid disabled veterans

Acts such as these symbolize the obligations of a nation to its citizens who have sacrificed their lives. In General Order No. 11 and other such declarations, we can also identify a common language of social loss and human sacrifice that provides meaning beyond the loss of human life. Important ideals are represented in symbolic words such as ultimate sacrifice, no greater love, heroes, tragic loss, and guardians of freedom. These words express the public sentiment and, in a collective sense, both define and inform community responses to massive human loss as well as the perceptions of survivors.


Much debate surrounds the term genocide and its appropriate definition, but for the purposes of this chapter the definition provided by Raphael Lempkin, which is included as part of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (Article II), is useful:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; and deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. (United Nations, as reprinted in Charney 1999:578)

Although the records are incomplete, many historical examples of genocide exist. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, males and females alike were suspected of being witches and were persecuted in many parts of the world, including Western Europe, South America, and the Salem, Massachusetts, colony in North America. These infamous witch trials served as an important mechanism for enacting a measure of social control. It has been estimated that from 50,000 to 100,000 accused witches were burned at the stake or otherwise executed.

Another case of genocide that is not widely acknowledged is the intentional extermination of Native peoples by immigrating settlers in North and South America, Australia, and Tasmania (see Robinson 2001). Tens of millions of Native Americans have been counted as victims at the hands of European explorers and settlers who immigrated to the Americas. In Australia, perhaps 720,000 out of a population of 750,000 Aborigines estimated to be living there in 1788 were decimated by disease and by murder at the hands of white European immigrants.

The 20th century has been recorded as the bloodiest period in history, and it may also become known as the century of genocide. It was from his study of genocide, especially the Holocaust, that Lifton (1980) identified and defined his concept of the survivor. Unlike in war, where many of the lives lost are those of combatants, in genocide the population under attack is composed of civilian innocents who have been targeted for extermination. The examples of 20th-century cases of genocide shown in Table 2 clearly establish the massive loss of life that genocide represents. Two examples—the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust—stand out because of the extensive documentation that exists. We use these examples below to examine the magnitude of genocide as well as community responses to such megadeath events.

The Armenian Genocide: 1915-1916

The Armenian genocide, which was carried out by the government of the Ottoman Turks, was intended to establish a pure Islamic Turkish state. The Armenians of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey were Christian, whereas the Young Turks and their followers where Muslim. The genocide was systematic, beginning with the removal of Armenians from the Turkish military forces. Once disarmed, the Armenian former soldiers were relocated to labor camps and then killed. Armenian political and intellectual leaders were also rounded up and killed. Finally, the remaining Armenians were rounded up, informed that they would be relocated, and then marched into the desert. They were denied food and water, and many also were robbed and killed by marauding bands of criminals and special guard units. At the Black Sea, the Armenians were loaded onto barges that were then sunk.

The consequence of this program of ethnic cleansing was that out of a population of approximately 2 million, 1.5 million Armenians were killed. To this day, the unwillingness of the Turkish government even to acknowledge the Armenian genocide creates a major void in the efforts of survivors and their descendants to bring some closure to bear on their loss. Nevertheless, like the survivors of massive wartime losses, Armenians have sought to create basic forms of remembrance and commemoration rooted in their ethnic identification. Their primary responses have been physical memorials and an annual Day of Remembrance.

The major memorial to the Armenian genocide is located in Yerevan, in Soviet Armenia. The monument consists of two parts, a round memorial sanctuary and the Obelisk of Rebirth. The Memorial Hall is composed of 12 basalt stiles placed in a circle around an eternal flame. The Obelisk of Rebirth, a narrow pyramid shape reaching toward the sky, symbolizes the revival of Armenia. In 1998, the basalt wall that lines the memorial’s walkway was inscribed with the names of the major sites in which the genocide occurred (Abdalian 1999).

The Holocaust: 1940-1945

The most documented and memorialized genocide in human history is the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of the Jews of Europe by the Nazi regime. The Holocaust represents the most systematic effort in history to exterminate an entire people. It was well planned and orchestrated by its perpetrators to take advantage of the most technically advanced resources available to establish a series of killing centers. Utilizing a common pesticide gas (Zyklon B) for mass killing, crematoria with specially designed chimneys for the disposal of large numbers of bodies, and other economically and technically advanced means of efficient extermination, the Nazis killed more than 25,000 Jews in each day of operation. Through these methods and others, the Nazi regime killed more than 6 million Jews. In addition to the genocide against the Jews, the Nazis executed more than 5 million other people who did not fit their “Aryan” ideal, including Sinti-Romanies (so-called Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, religious and political dissidents, and persons who were crippled or mentally ill—German citizens who, as Friedlander (1995) notes, were identified as “life unworthy of life” (p. 14).

In attempting to understand the Holocaust by focusing on the victims and especially on the survivors, Lifton (1980) created the concept of individual and collective survivorship, thereby laying a foundation for an understanding of the nature of social responses to megadeath. The very nature and definition of genocide lead us to identify immediately with the victims, because they are part of a collective whole that was identified by the perpetrators along ethnic, religious, or racial lines. Survivors, according to Lifton, bear direct responsibility for remembrance and commemoration.

Sybil Milton (1999) identifies two basic types of Holocaust memorials: the unintentional and the intentional. Unintentional memorials are those made up of the remnants of former concentration and extermination camps and cultural ghettoes. Currently there are more than 100 such memorials with attendant museums located in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland. These memorials preserve the contents of these camps from the time of their active participation in genocide, including electrified fences, barracks, gas chambers and crematoria, jails, and railroad tracks, among other artifacts. Each year, survivors, their children, and their children’s children, Jews and non-Jews alike, visit Auschwitz/Birkenau to engage in the March of the Living.

Yom HaShoah, an annual worldwide Jewish holiday, has been established to commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah (Shoah is the Jewish word for the Holocaust) is relatively new to the Jewish calendar, and little agreement exists on the best way to mark this day of commemoration. However, many Jews hope that by encouraging the observation of this day, they will help to deepen the world’s understanding of the Holocaust tragedy.

In locations where remains of the Holocaust no longer exist or never existed, intentional memorials have been erected. The Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka death camp, both destroyed prior to the end of World War II, continue to hold a substantial legacy. At the Warsaw Ghetto, a statue honors those who died during the uprising that took place there, and in Treblinka, a semicircle of stones surrounds a monument situated where a gas chamber once stood, each stone representing an entire community destroyed during the Holocaust. There are many intentional memorials, but the largest and perhaps most important are Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, located in Jerusalem; the Ghetto Fighters’ House, also located in Israel; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, located in Los Angeles. These memorials and other symbols impart the strong message throughout the community and especially to future generations: “Never again.”

More recent genocides include those that took place in the killing fields of Cambodia (where there are thousands of mass graves), in Rwanda, and in the infamous ethnic cleansing conducted in Bosnia against Muslims by Serbian Christians. Although these events have yet to be recognized officially with public memorials, the victims of the Cambodian genocide are honored to a limited extent at the S-21 prison located in Phnom Penh.

Epidemics and Disasters

Some ecologists have identified diseases and concomitant epidemics that arose in the past owing to lack of scientific knowledge and ability to control them as nature’s way of balancing the growth of population. In any case, when diseases become epidemic and result in megadeaths, there is always some form of social reaction, even if that reaction is later defined as having been misplaced.

Similar to epidemics, disasters strike in rapid fashion, and people’s reactions to these events that disrupt community equilibrium are no less dramatic. In this section, we focus on responses to epidemics and disasters, both natural and human-made. Epidemics and disasters are often viewed as inevitable, especially those that involve diseases or events that are beyond human knowledge and control. In addition, disasters that result from mismanagement or lack of insight regarding the risks of particular actions may serve as tragic examples of nonreaction, but these also represent an important part of the human experience.


Two major epidemics account for the highest numbers of mass deaths recorded worldwide. The first of these, the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1347-51 killed approximately half of the population of the European continent. The plague was responsible for an estimated total of more than 137 million deaths. Although, unlike other causes of mass death, epidemics such as the bubonic plague do not usually stimulate the establishment of memorials, they do result in societal responses. For example, in the case of the Black Death, religious leaders responded by linking the epidemic to visions of the Apocalypse. Others cast the blame for the terrible scourge on such despised groups as Jews, prostitutes, homosexuals, and other so-called immoral and heretical influences (Aiken 2001:60).

In 1918-19, a highly contagious virus known as Spanish influenza was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people worldwide; approximately 850,000 of these victims were residents of the United States. This airborne form of influenza spread rapidly, and with devastating effects. Some communities were especially vulnerable; for example, 60% of the Eskimo population living in Nome, Alaska, died within a matter of days. One-fifth of the global population was infected, as was 28% of the U.S. population.

The United States has seen at least 11 epidemics of major proportion. Among these recorded epidemics, the one that best exemplifies the scope of global response to a pandemic disease is the spread of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). From the time HIV/AIDS was identified in 1981 to December 1998, according to estimates by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, worldwide more than 13.9 million people died from AIDS; more than 400,000 of these deaths occurred in the United States (“Pestilence” 2002).

Among the many social responses to the loss of lives from AIDS, two of the most important are the commemorations represented by the Names Project Memorial Quilt and World AIDS Day. The original Names Project began in San Francisco in 1987, when a group of people set out to commemorate the lives of friends lost to this disease. As of this writing, the AIDS Memorial Quilt includes more than 44,000 individual memorial panels (each 3 by 6 feet), each of which commemorates a single life. Collectively, the quilt symbolizes a worldwide loss of lives from the HIV/AIDS pandemic (AIDS Memorial Quilt n.d.). World AIDS Day, established in 1988, is a day set aside each year to commemorate those who have died from the disease, celebrate the living, and renew a pledge to fight the pandemic (“World AIDS Day Commemorations” n.d.).

Although the initial commemorations of AIDS victims began among members of gay communities in the United States where the AIDS virus was first identified, as more knowledge of the disease has become available the memorial responses no longer target a single group, and various forms of commemoration have been established worldwide. Another social response to the AIDS pandemic has taken the form of attempts to educate the global public regarding the risks associated with the virus that causes the disease.

Natural Disasters

In 1887, nearly 2 million Chinese died when the Hwang Ho River overflowed its 3,000-mile banks. In 1931, a similar flooding of the area was responsible for the drowning deaths of 4 million Chinese, and in 1938, the Hwang Ho flooded again, leading to the drowning deaths of almost a million people.

Deaths attributed to earthquakes are not infrequent, although generally the numbers of recorded deaths are not large. Exceptions have been documented, however. The deadliest earthquake on record occurred in China on January 23, 1556, when 830,000 people died. More than 200 years later, on July 27, 1976, the second deadliest earthquake (magnitude 8.0 on the Richter scale) was recorded in Tangshan, China. The resulting loss of life was 255,000 (although some have estimated the loss to be as high as 655,000). On March 25, 2002, an earthquake of 6.1 magnitude killed 1,000 people in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. On January 26, 2001, a total of 20,023 deaths occurred in Gujarat, India, as the result of an earthquake of magnitude 7.7. Earlier in that same month, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake killed 852 people in El Salvador.

Measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale, the April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake occurred at 5:13 A.M. The fire that followed the earthquake burned for 4 days, during which time it is estimated that 3,000 people died from all causes related to the quake, including the initial earthquake, the extensive multiple fires that resulted, a major aftershock, and the collapse of buildings. The financial damage of this disaster was approximately $500 million in 1906 dollars. However, the rebuilding of the city soon began, as the resolve of its people was put into action. On April 23, 1906, the governor of California stated, “The work of rebuilding San Francisco has commenced, and I expect to see the great metropolis replaced on a much grander scale than ever before” (quoted in Museum of the City of San Francisco, n.d.). (For more information on the numbers of deaths caused by various natural disasters, see the appendix to this chapter.)

Airplane Disasters

Since the end of World War II, worldwide air traffic has increased dramatically. In addition to the numbers of aircraft in the skies, the size of aircraft has increased, so that far greater numbers of people travel on a single airplane. As with any advances in science and technology, the advances in air travel have had some negative consequences; one such consequence is that with larger aircraft, a larger loss of life is incurred when a crash takes place.

The cumulative loss of lives in airplane disasters numbers in the thousands, a small proportion of total population compared with other forms of mass death, but the effects of these kinds of events on the world community appear to be exacerbated by the fact that it is often the case that an airplane crash accounts for a significant number of deaths in a single event as well as within a matter of minutes. Table 4 lists the 10 deadliest airplane crashes to date. Some of these were the result of mechanical failure and human error; others were caused by terrorist activity.


Terrorist bombings and other forms of sabotage represent yet another source of megadeaths. We use two examples of recent acts of terrorism in this section to illustrate significant community responses in reaction to massive loss of life owing to terrorist acts. The April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, stunned the entire nation. Americans were not accustomed to experiencing domestic terrorism, and the bombing left 168 people dead and a nation overwhelmed with grief. This significant loss of life and property was, until September 11, 2001, identified as the worst terrorist attack ever to occur on U.S. soil.

The attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon are now secure in American history as the most devastating terrorist acts ever to be perpetrated on U.S. soil. With a loss of approximately 3,000 lives and extensive financial strain, the events of September 11, and the aftermath of these attacks on the symbols of democracy and capitalism, have produced a social response that indicates a strong need to commemorate this day. On December 18, 2001, the U.S. Congress enacted House Joint Resolution 71 as Public Law 104-89, establishing Patriot Day as a day of remembrance for the victims of the September 11 attacks. Many state legislatures either have passed or currently are considering similar resolutions. The days that states have already proposed to commemorate September 11 include Emergency Providers and Armed Forces Day (Alaska), Remembrance Day (Connecticut), Florida Rescue Worker’s Day, Firefighters and Emergency Medical Personnel Day (Kentucky), Maryland Day of Temperance, Pledge of Allegiance Day (Michigan), Heroes Day (New Jersey), National 911 Day (Pennsylvania), 911 Heroes Day (South Carolina), Emergency Worker’s Day (Tennessee), and Virginia Police, Fire, and Rescue Services Memorial Day. Other states have plans to create permanent memorials dedicated to the victims of September 11, 2001, financed either with state funds or through tax-deductible donations. Other sponsored activities conducted at the local level on or about September 11, 2002, to commemorate the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks included high school and college events such as performances and displays of memorial artwork, museum offerings, and public discussions pertaining to such issues as the difference between a freedom fighter and a suicide bomber.


It is difficult at best to summarize the research findings and general facts available pertaining to megadeath events and the resultant reactions of individuals and communities to these events and the processes leading to such catastrophes, but perhaps a focus on one recent event can serve to demonstrate the importance that remembrance holds for communities large and small. President George W. Bush’s encouragement that we go on with our lives in the aftermath of the tragedy of the events of September 11, 2001, seemed, to Americans in particular, extraordinary. But as astonishing as the events of that day were, and as vivid as they remain in our minds, life does indeed seem to go on. And this orientation may offer us important insight into why collective commemorations not only identify the historical past but represent important cultural artifacts.

For some Americans, the events of September 11, 2001, will forever be forged in memory. In the minds of others, however, the tragedy may eventually come to be perceived merely as an event in history—an event that, like so many others, has little direct or personal meaning. We create memorials to recognize those whose lives were lost, and these memorials serve an important social function: Without them, the events might soon fade from memory and eventually enter into total oblivion. The efforts that individuals and organized groups make to ensure that memorials are erected or state or national days of remembrance are created give notice that megadeath events are social facts. Such facts represent an important part of the human legacy, no matter how tragic they may be. Time may heal the individual wounds endured directly or indirectly by all who constitute the body politic, but memorials, symbolic as they are, ensure that we never forget. This, too, represents our legacy.