In 1912, the CS Mackay-Bennett set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a mission to recover bodies from the wreck of the Titanic.
The ship had been quickly converted into a “morgue ship” following the disaster, equipped with 100 coffins, all the embalming fluid in the city of Halifax and 100 tons of ice to preserve the bodies during transport. However, it was not enough.
The crew found many more bodies than expected, most of them half held above water by life jackets, floating in the freezing water. On the return of the ship, which was carrying 190 dead from the Titanic disaster, Captain Lardner told the press that they had not been able to bring all the dead ashore and that many of them had been buried at sea.
“Most of them were crew members,” Lardner explained to the Washington Times, “and we couldn’t take care of them.”
The crew found many more bodies than expected
“When I left Halifax, I took on board all the embalming fluid in the city. It was only enough to take care of seventy corpses. We did not expect to find corpses in such large quantities. The undertakers did not believe that these bodies would last more than three days at sea, and as we expected to stay more than two weeks, we had to bury them.”
About a third of the total of 337 bodies recovered from the wreck by the CS Mackay-Bennett and three other recovery vessels were given a burial at sea, with all their belongings taken as a way of identification. Who was brought home for burial and who was thrown overboard—albeit with a job beforehand—was not done at random.
“Decisions about which bodies were to be buried at sea were made based on the perceived economic class of the recovered victims,” sociologist Jess Bier wrote in a study of the post-disaster forensic identification process.
“No prominent man was left in the depths”
Bodies presumed to be first-class passengers—by dress, appearance, and affect—were embalmed and placed in coffins. Second class passengers were embalmed but wrapped in cloth. Those in the third class were not embalmed, but were placed in shrouds prepared for burial at sea.
“As workers separated corpses based on perceived economic class, they were effectively deciding which corpses were valuable enough to preserve and which would be left to rapidly decompose underwater,” Bier added, according to IFL Science.
One of the reasons for the decision was monetary. Life insurance, a relatively new field, would not pay without the presence of a body, and he believed that wealthier passengers were more likely to have insurance or to have legacies that should have been paid.
“No prominent men were left in the depths,” the captain explained at the time Lardner. “It seemed best to be sure to bring the dead back to land where death might give rise to problems like big insurances and legacies and all the litigation.”
Bodies discovered by ‘death cruises’
For Bier, the decisions came from entrenched notions of class, all too evident aboard the Titanic before and after it hit the iceberg.
“From allegations that some first-class passengers were confined below decks to the overwhelmingly high odds of survival for first-class passengers,” Bier wrote, “class distinctions were seen as a natural part of of society”.
The captain and his crew were looking for physical signs to identify a corpse, which also was based on class lines.
Of the bodies discovered by “death cruises,” as they were called in the press at the time, crew were 36 percent more likely to be buried at sea than other passengers. Of all the dead recovered, only one body of the upper class was buried at sea.