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What Happened On The "Death Cruise" That Recovered Bodies From The Wreckage Of The Titanic

Even in death, the passengers were not treated the same.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockJun 22 2022, 16:30 UTC
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The titanic sets sail
Even in death, class distinctions remained. Image credit: antoniradso/shutterstock.com

In 1912, the CS Mackay-Bennett set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the task of recovering dead bodies from the wreckage of the Titanic.

The vessel had been quickly turned into a "morgue ship" following the disaster, fitted with 100 coffins, all the embalming fluid in the city of Halifax, and 100 tons of ice to preserve bodies in transit. It wasn't enough.

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The crew found many more bodies than they were expecting, most held half above the water by life vests, floating in the icy water. Upon the ship's return, carrying 190 dead from the Titanic disaster, Captain Lardner told the press that they had been unable to return all the dead to shore, and that many had been buried at sea.

"Most of them were members of the crew," Lardner explained to the Washington Times, "and we couldn’t care for them."

"When we left Halifax we took on board all of the embalming fluid in the city. That was only enough to care for seventy bodies. It wasn’t expected that we would find bodies in such great quantities. The undertaker didn’t think these bodies would keep more than three days at sea, and as we expected to be out more than two weeks we had to bury them. They received the full services for the dead before they were put over."

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Around one-third of the total 337 bodies recovered from the wreck by the CS Mackay-Bennett and three other recovery ships were given a sea burial, with any belongings on their person taken as a way to identify them. Who was brought home for burial and who was thrown overboard – albeit with a service beforehand – was not done at random. 

“Decisions about which bodies to bury at sea were made largely according to the perceived economic class of the recovered victims, and those with third-class tickets were far more likely to be returned to the water," sociologist Jess Bier wrote in a study of the forensic identification process after the disaster.

The bodies presumed to be first-class passengers – from their dress, appearance, and affects – were embalmed and placed in coffins. Second class passengers were embalmed but wrapped in canvas. Third class were not embalmed, but stored in canvas ready for burial at sea.

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"As the recovery workers separated bodies according to perceived economic class, they effectively decided which bodies were valued enough to be preserved, and which would be allowed to rapidly decompose underwater," Bier added.

One of the reasons for the decision was monetary. Life insurance, a relatively new field, would not pay out without the presence of a body, and he deemed that the richer passengers were more likely to have insurance, or have inheritance that would need to be paid out.

“No prominent man was recommitted to the deep,” Captain Lardner explained at the time. “It seemed best to be sure to bring back to land the dead where the death might give rise to such questions as large insurance and inheritance and all the litigation.”

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For Bier, the decisions came from ingrained notions of class, all too evident aboard the Titanic before and after it hit the iceberg.

“From the allegations that some steerage passengers were locked below decks, to the overwhelming better chances of survival for first-class passengers," she wrote, "[class] distinctions were assumed to be a natural part of society."

The captain and his crew looked for physical signs that a body could be identified, which also drew on class lines. For instance, upper class people were more likely to wear clothing that had their initials sewn in, or to carry business cards identifying themselves and their company. 

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Of those bodies discovered by the "death cruises", as they were called by the press at the time, crew were 36 percent more likely to be buried at sea than other passengers, and third-class passengers 46 percent more likely to join them. Second-class passengers were 69 percent more likely to be brought to shore. 

Among all the recovered dead, only one upper class body was buried at sea.


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