The Titanic Bodies: Found and Lost Again

The story of the Titanic usually ends with the sinking of the ship in April 1912, the rescue of survivors, the ensuing scandals, and subsequent improvements in liner safety. But what about Titanicis dead ? Most of the over 1,500 casualties were lost in the North Atlantic. Crews aboard four recovery vessels pulled just 337 bodies from the water.

Researcher Jess Bier examines what did we do with these bodies and explains how their identification and treatment have been integrated into their economic evaluation. All of the dead found have been numbered for the records, but some counted much more than others. As she notes, “Decisions about which bodies to bury at sea were made largely based on the perceived economic class of recovered victims, and those with third-class tickets were far more likely to be released to the water”.

The TitanicThe microcosm of class distinctions is now infamous. “From allegations that some steerage passengers were locked up below decks, to the better chances of survival for first class passengers, such distinctions were assumed to be an integral part of society,” Bier writes. Class distinction too, it seems, extended beyond death. Bier contrasts the preservation and return of well-to-do victims with the rapid decay and burial at sea of ​​the less well-to-do. About a third of the bodies recovered, or 114 of them, were returned to the very waters from which they had been extracted.

The relatively new idea of ​​life insurance assigned a monetary value to (some) bodies. Wealthier passengers “almost certainly would have life insurance policies that would pay for their burial or cremation”. The working and middle classes were much less likely to have life insurance. Even if they did, Bier explains, “an identifiable body had to be found before the family of the deceased could receive life insurance compensation. Yet because burial at sea was class-based, families third-class victims were less likely to show up with such a body.

There were, writes Bier, two criteria for the bodies to be preserved for earthly burial. The bodies were to “be considered readily identifiable, whether as individuals or even as human beings”. (Days afloat while sun-bleached produced very grim remains.) Second, the bodies were also to have “economic value even after death, [with a] great social or economic value.

Bodies recovered from the RMS Titanic arriving at the Mayflower Curling Club, Agricola Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, which was set up as a temporary morgue, 1912 via Wikimedia Commons

The cable ship MacKay Bennett ended up doing most of the recovery work for the floating dead. Built to lay and repair the transatlantic cable, the ship was supplied in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a chaplain, an embalmer, one hundred coffins, one hundred tons of ice and what was believed to be a lot of embalming fluid . This was not the case.

The bodies were numbered as they were brought on board. Physical characteristics, clothing, identifying marks and personal effects have all been documented. Personal effects were stored separately, labeled with the same body number, and valuables were locked away by the commissary. Without enough equipment or space to handle the bodies and their belongings, the crew had to sort through.

First and second class passengers, identified as such by available placards, were embalmed. First-class bodies received wooden coffins; second-class bodies were wrapped in canvas and stored separately. Third class and crew bodies were not embalmed but simply wrapped in canvas, stored on deck, to be buried at sea in group ceremonies.

“No prominent man has been re-incarcerated in the depths,” said the Mackay Bennettis captain. “It seemed better to be sure to bring the dead ashore where death might raise issues like big insurance and inheritance and all the litigation.”

Many of the artifacts recovered from bodies buried at sea were cataloged and brought to Halifax, where they were later burned as unclaimed property. It was a permanent erasure. Meanwhile, the ship’s $5 million insurance was paid within 30 days of the sinking.

Bier writes that the Titanic recovery “played a role in future body identification practices, which only began to be standardized […] after the Second World War. All this before the DNA analysis, of course, which has since been used to identify passengers and report a fraud.


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By: Jess Beer

Social studies of science, vol. 48, no. 5 (October 2018), p. 635–662

Sage Publications, Inc.

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