Exhumation of Titanic victims' bodies this week


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Jan C. Nielsen

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The San Francisco Chronicle reports that three Titanic victims' bodies will be exhumed, for identification and DNA testing, this week. I suspect that the bodies are those of Alma and Gosta Poulson, but I have no clue as to the third (a young man in his 20s).

Families seek DNA samples from Titanic victims in search for relatives

Wednesday, May 16, 2001
Breaking News Sections

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(05-16) 18:29 PDT HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) --

The families of three victims from the sinking of the Titanic plan to have three graves reopened this week to seek DNA samples to determine whether the remains inside are those of their lost relatives.

The three sets of remains are among 43 buried in Halifax that have never been positively identified. Around 150 of the 1,500 people who died when the luxury liner sank in April 1912 in the icy North Atlantic have been buried in Halifax.

The graves of a woman in her 30s, a man in his 20s, and a young child will be excavated Thursday and Friday at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, said Dr. Ryan Parr, the principal investigator on the scientific team.

The families seeking DNA identification of the remains wish to remain anonymous. It was not clear what led them to believe the three graves may be the ones holding their relatives.

Parr -- co-director of the paleo-DNA laboratory at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario -- said he had contacted one of the families through their minister.

"This particular family had just wondered and wondered what happened to their relative," he said. "They've done all the research they can do. The DNA analysis is their last resort."

The exhumations were approved by Nova Scotia's chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Strang.

Strang said that, as with any exhumation, relatives must provide written information explaining why they want it done, and giving their approval for the process.

"Plus, I wanted to make sure that this was being approached from a research point of view -- not for financial gain or publicity gain under the guise of Titanic," he said.

The Titanic went down about 375 miles southeast of Newfoundland on its maiden voyage after striking an iceberg, sinking under three hours.

Lack of lifeboat space, poor evacuation procedures and slowness of response to distress signals have been cited for the disastrous loss of life.

About 700 people did manage to get into lifeboats.

The wreck of the vessel was finally discovered in 1985, 73 years after its sinking.
 

Philip Hind

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What an utterly unneccesary waste of time and money. Whatever happened to resting in peace?

There is quite enough ghoulish interest in the Titanic, witness regular discussions on the photographs of the dead, without exhuming bodies for some pointless DNA exercise. No doubt some enterprising documentary maker will be on hand with a video camera to watch them picking through the bones.

What possible difference does it make if these bodies are or are not who they think they might be?
 
Mar 3, 1998
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I just watched a History Channel special on the excavation of a hillside tomb of Chilean mummies, and the project ended with DNA sampling proving that certain members of a nearby town were probable descendents of some of the mummies now on display in a local museum. It appeared that it meant something to the locals.

The justification for removing the wrapped mummies is that it would only be a matter of time before grave robbers found the site and destroyed the mummies (or even sell them on eBay!) in search of treasure. By linking the mummies to the family trees of the locals, it is thought that the locals will take a more active role in safeguarding the area, where additional tombs may remain unlocated.

Of course, this doesn't directly relate to the Halifax exhumation, but the thing that struck me while watching the mummy documentary is that the bodies are artifacts, containing evidence that could provide a link to the past. The soul which made that body a living, breathing personality is long gone. I'm not saying that the remains should not be treated with respect, or that gratuitous experimentation should be allowed, but isn't it possible that a testing of the remains will, in this case, give a family answers to questions that have tormented them for almost 9 decades?

This is my own view, and I certainly don't intend to impose my beliefs on others. I fully realise, without criticism, that there are others who view mortal remains in a more sacred light than I do. Just figured I would throw a thought out for consideration.

Parks
 

Philip Hind

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It would be very worrying if it transpired that the remains were those of someone whose family were vehemently opposed to exhumation!

I can sympathise with the family's wish to know if their ancestor has an identifiable grave but numerous other families have to live with the knowledge that their ancestor's remains were never found.

Perhaps these days we are numb to to ethical problems these activites raise since we have become used to submarines picking up the personal effects of Titanic victims for public amusement.

Just because something can be done does not mean it should be done.

The case of the mummies, mentioned above, is somewhat different. In archaeological investigation it is obviously necessary sometimes to exhume bodies.
 

Jan C. Nielsen

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Phil, Parks:
Consider also the ongoing excavation of remains from the vintage 1864 submarine, C.S.S. Hunley. The bones and personal effects of almost all of the crew have been recovered. Although the recovery of these bones is being handled in a careful manner --apparently, the museum is going to use the skulls as models to recreate how all of the crew actually looked. That seems a bit gross to me. But others do not think so.

This digging up bodies thing is becoming commonplace. A couple of years ago former president Zachary Taylor's remains were unearthed to see if he had been poisoned by arsenic. He wasn't. But Napolean Bonaparte was exhumed, too. Apparently there was evidence that he had been poisoned with arsenic.

Jesse James was exhumed a few years ago, his bones were presented on television, then reburied. Some years ago, a team went to Bolivia and excavated the wrong bones (thought to be those of Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid).
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Philip,

I understand your concerns. I emphatically agree with you that no exhumation should be done for public amusement. I hope that all due course was followed and careful consideration was given before approval was granted to exhume the bodies.

Above all, I hope that the exhumation will prove to have been worth the effort, morally and historically.

Parks
 
Apr 16, 2001
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Phil and the ET message board,

I've had some knowledge of this upcoming exhumation since several of our Halifax Titanic historians have been working on this matter for quite some time.

Having just spoken with several of those involved, the exhumations have already begun on bodies 240 and 281 at the Fairview Cemetery in Halifax. Body #4 will be exhumed tomorrow. I'm sure many will recognize the significance of body #4 - that of the "Unknown Child." The work will be conducted surrounded by a large tent and the press and general public will have no access to the exhumation this afternoon.

It must be be pointed that family members in Europe have directed this exhumation. Personally, I believe the evidence linking bodies 240 and 281 is very weak, and it may be that nothing will be learned. On the other hand, I believe that the identity of the "Unknown Child" could probably be learned following this study. Of course, it is to be determined if the remains will yield up anything - it's possible that the bones are so old that DNA testing may not be possible. The soil deposits in Nova Scotia, so close to the sea, could have erased all evidence of DNA - at least that's what I've told by researchers/scientists up there.

Personally, I don't have a problem with relatives seeking to establish the identity of their loved ones, but I don't see where the concrete evidence was established to determine the reason for exhuming bodies 281 and 240. Body #4 will probably be identified but the family in Europe will determine just if and when they will make the findings of this study public.

Stay tuned....

Mike Findlay
 

Ben Holme

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Thank you Mike for shedding more light on this.

I only learned a couple of days ago, while reading the Rice section of "The Irish Aboard Titanic" that exhumations were being suggested, but I had no idea it would happen so soon.

Is it just the one family requesting the exhumations?

Just for the sake of interest, #281 was apparently an Irish woman in her late 30s (Interestingly, this narrows it down quite considerably). I believe a crucifix was amongst her effects. #241 was the man in his 20s. A Brighton address was recovered amongst his possessions. The only men on board (that I know of) with Brighton (England) connections were David Reeves (second class) and F. Smith (crew). This does not mean that the body was necessarily one of those men. Certainly, I don't see how a link can be drawn between the two.

Ben
 
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I first heard about this in an e-mail sent to several of our group by Bill Willard, and also on Mark Taylor's listserv. I had no idea that the project had already begun. I can understand everybody's ethical concerns on this. It all, as Phil points out, seems rather ghoulish.

On the other hand, we seem to have a cultural obsession with "closure" these days, and if recoverable DNA can link a body to some reletives, perhaps a family will get just that.

I'll take a wait and see stance on this one, and hope it doesn't degenerate into a bloody media three ring circus.

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 
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Christine Geyer

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Michael, thank you very much for the information. Indeed on one hand I can understand that people would like to clarify the situation and be sure if or if it's not a member of their family. But on the other hand I think it's not worth at all to disturb the peace of the dead. It doesn't change anything in their daily life. It's 89 years ago and they've likely never known the victim. So what !? Those graves should be left alone. Anyone can come, visit the cemetery and respectfully think of the victims that rest there, those who could never be recovered, and the disaster itself. You don't have to know the exact inch where your family member lies.

Furthermore I'm shocked that it seems so easy to cause not only one exhumation but three !! The one report says that the city denied the request of the family to put a name on the headstone, saying their evidence was inconclusive. So I really wonder why then it's conclusive enough to let them excavate and open 3 caskets and let them root about those poor peoples bones !! Can I even simply call there and say I want #308, 139 and 220 and they run there and see what's inside like an advent calendar ?? I really hope that this will only be isolated cases with no more to follow.

Regards,
Christine
 

Steve Santini

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Hello all,
As a Canadian, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the recent excavation of Titanic victims in my country. Add to this a large ammount of media attention, and you have a situation which I believe (just my opinion) casts a very unhealthy light on Canada's Titanic legacy and involvement. I find it somewhat odd that I was on a T.V. talk show some years ago opposite a historian from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and we were discussing on a national forum wether or not RMS Titanic Inc. should ethically and legally be raising a section of Titanic's hull. The MMA's position was clearly "anti salvage" and this point was repeatedly driven home by the representative from the MMA. Now, it seems, right in the home city of the MMA, a more intrusive sort of Titanic related study is taking place. I wonder what the fellow from the MMA with whom I appeared with on T.V. would have to say about this? I also find it of interest that one of the expedition team members involved in this excavation of victims' graves is not a forensic scientist but instead owns and operates a private firm devoted to marine geology. While it is true that this same individual has authored one book on Halifax and it's connection to Titanic, I find it very unusual that this same man would be one of the major figures giving media interviews concerning the ongoing work at the Fairview Cemetery. In fact, I saw this very person give a detailed interview to the Discovery Canada television station last evening. In this interview, it was said that the families who showed interest in having the excavation done wished not to be named and instead "wished to remain annonyomous". Very curious indeed. One would think that if distant relatives of a possible Titanic victim wished to know the identity of a lost loved one, they would step forward in thier quest, if not only to put to rest some of the negative press which will no doubt follow this effort. A friend of mine, upon hearing the news of this recent project, remarked to me that it seems that this is not the first time Halifax and the Titanic have made headlines of a controversial nature. He went on to remind me that following the Cameron film the very graveyard where victims were buried became a sort of marcabre tourist attraction complete with tour buses and huge masses of people stomping about the final resting place of the Titanic's lost souls. Was this in and of itself not indignity enough? As my friend pointed out, this present sort of activity, (the excavations),smacks of the sort of "great scientific work" which will no doubt spawn yet another book about the lost liner. I for one, hope that he is wrong but fear that he is right. And, should such a book appear, hidden beneath the guise of "scientific research", I for one hope that reasonable minded people will see it and remember what it cost to produce; namely, yet another indignity to people who paid the ultimate price on April 15th, 1912 and SHOULD NOT be made to pay, and pay, and pay again. Isn't it about time that these souls were left to rest? We have taken thier lives, (and reaped huge profits through bringing said lives to the silver screen and to the pages of countless books), we have taken thier deaths, (and turned them into a massive tourism industry), and, finally, we are taking actual PIECES OF THEM to satisfy lingering curiosity and hopefully shed light on a couple of nagging questions concerning identity. And, all in the name of "legitimate scientific pursuits"...shame, shame, shame. It is a dark day for Titanic's legacy. Steve Santini.
 

Mike Herbold

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Steve: You wrote:

Isn't it about time that these souls were left to rest? We have taken thier lives, (and reaped huge profits through bringing said lives to the silver screen and to the pages of countless books), we have taken thier deaths, (and turned them into a massive tourism industry), and, finally, we are taking actual PIECES OF THEM to satisfy lingering curiosity and hopefully shed light on a couple of nagging questions concerning identity.

I didn't quite understand your point. Are you not the author of one of those countless books "Titanic: Touchstones of a Tragedy?" And in your book, do you not have two pictures of dead bodies, unidentified victims number 92 and 278?

Are you upset because the Canadian press is not interviewing you, or is there a deeper reason? I am a bit confused by your breast-beating.
 

Teri Lynn Milch

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What I don't understand is why the exhumation now, in the year 2001? I can't honestly believe that family members of today are "suffering" by not knowing who their decendents were from years and years ago. They must have been given a very morbid upbringing to be "suffering" from unknown lost relatives in the year 2001. In other words, if Billy's (made up name) great grandmother didn't worry about lost relatives in 1912, why should Billy be worried about it now in 2001??? I could see if Billy had lost his own mother in the disaster and wanted to exhume to see if one of those bodies is his mother, but otherwise I can't justify exhumation to see if this body is his great great great grandmother. That can't possibly serve anyone any purpose in the year 2001.

Those are my .02 cents worth. I say let the bodies be, unless there is substantial evidence to prove that someone is indeed "suffering" from not knowing about their decendents. And even if the family member IS "suffering," it is far more likely to be due to upbringing, not unknowingness.

If anyone is suffering from lost relatives, it's me!!! Do I have any lost relatives in Halifax? Let's see, I'll call them up and start a three-ring circus over there! Yahoo! Gees.... Give me a break!
crazy.gif


Teri
 

Lisa Stone

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I spent the day at the cemetery in Halifax yesterday and took pictures of the work being done. It was peaceful and tactful and hopefully there will be names on three graves after 89 long years. I will be writing about the whole experience after I attend the private memorial the families are having today that my Mom and I were invited to. I'll post the journal later for anyone interested.

Lisa
 

Teri Lynn Milch

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Lisa,

Yes please write about the whole experience and include the "suffering" you saw from them not knowing who their relatives were! We wouldn't want to be left out! Please enlighten us, please enlighten us!

Teri (I'm gagging right about now.)
 
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annie o'greefa

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Unless this is being done as some kind of "Geraldo Rivera" media circus, than I don't see any problem in trying to identify the remains. It might be done for religious reasons as some have very particular rites for death and burial before going on to heaven (or where ever their belief in an afterlife takes them). Personally, I think it's a good idea to try to identify them as it gives, not only a sense of closure, but of dignity back to the person.
 

Jan C. Nielsen

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Some years ago there was a controversy with conducting DNA research to determine whether the remains of a purportedly "unknown" soldier from the Vietnam War buried in the Tomb Of The Unknown Solider (near Washington, D.C.) were, in fact, known. As I recall, the family fought the military brass for permission to exhume the remains for testing, and won. It was determined that the remains were those of the family's son --and they were buried with the family's other members elsewhere. To date, there is no "unknown" solider from the Vietnam war in the famous tomb (only WWI, WWII and Korean war remains). In this context, there was a closer family connection (i.e., soldier's mother and father sought permission) than the cases in Halifax. But it seems that if a family can get remains exhumed from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they can certainly do the same with the Titanic graves in Halifax. Conceivably, if the remains are identified and connected to these families, then they could take them to their own family burial ground. Frankly, this seems to be a better fate that resting in an unknown grave under a stone with a number at the end of the earth, Halifax. Let's face it, the intent all along was for the families to pick up the bodies. Only those that were unclaimed, and unidentified, were buried in Halifax.

Remains from disasters are handled in not so gracious a manner today.

Yesterday, I was talking to a lawyer who handled some airline crash cases. He said that after one crash, he represented a client who wanted her husband's (who died in the crash) ring returned. The airline purported had 1,800 pounds of remains of people. Incredibly, but not surprisingly, they sent her the wrong ring. The body parts were taken and buried (in the middle of the night) in a cornfield in Ohio, or somewhere.

Times have changed.
 
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Obviously, there are a multitude of opinions on this topic. Welcome to the "public domain." Titanic's popularity is a double-edged sword...I'd be very surprised if a movie made from the Empress of Ireland disaster would return a profit, but I also don't see people exhuming victims of that disaster. When the light shines on something, all sorts of people are attracted. Only those out of the limelight enjoy peace.

Parks
 
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