Respect for the dead

A headline in the Chronicle today has me thinking about respect for the dead. Apparently as part of a promotional stunt, the Metreon theatre in San Francisco hauled a chunk of the Titanic’s hull up onto their roof, where presumably it will serve some as yet known purpose. Other artifacts “salvaged” from the ocean floor are making up an exhibit which is housed elsewhere in the Metreon building.

The photographs show a fairly mundane looking piece of steel being carefully maneuvered because it’s rather heavy.

What the article doesn’t discuss is that the piece of hull and all the artifacts on display were looted from a gravesite. Perhaps “looted” might seem too strong a word for you–RMS Titanic, Inc. holds “salvors rights” to the wreck, a monopoly secured shortly after the discovery in 1985. According to international law, the artifacts were legally retrieved. The company is the only one in the world allowed to remove artifacts from the site, and supposedly they are not allowed to sell whatever they may find. Thus, the company finances its expeditions by displaying their finds. And I’m not the only one who uses strong language when discussing the desecration of the site–the Titanic Historical Society refers to it as “plundering.” (And one will note that the plaque left at the site by the society has been removed, though others left since remain.)

Before we discuss whether or not we think its acceptable to remove things from gravesites, let us consider the way in which things are harvested from the Titanic, which lies two miles below the surface of the ocean. Very few craft are capable of going down that far, and the pressure would kill anyone attempting to dive in it (at least given current technology, though this may change). Though the company does utilize robots and other tools, most of their “salvaging” is done by dragging a giant net through the debris field. In addition to churning up the ocean floor, this method damages a number of artifacts beyond repair. It also makes the site difficult for scientists to study. It is also hardly in keeping with archaeological ethics, where every attempt is made to maintain the integrity of the site.

The company claims that the artifacts hold some sort of educational value, and therefore should be on display. I disagree violently with this premise. The Titanic sunk in 1912. If household goods from 1912 have historical value, there are much easier ways to retrieve and display them than financing multi-million dollar expeditions to the bottom of the ocean, coupled with extremely expensive preservation techniques. The White Star Line continued to sail for a number of years after the sinking–china, cutlery, and fixtures matching those found on the Titanic are readily available. Her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic, were more or less identical (although the Olympic, commandeered as a hospital ship, sunk in 1916 after being shot by a torpedo).

Items from the Titanic hold value to the observer because of where they are from, not because they have intrinsic worth as historical artifacts. In my opinion, they held worth in one place only–at the bottom of the ocean, just off the Grand Banks. Now they are simply woeful artifacts of a bygone time, wrested from the place they sat in undisturbed for 73 years. Though there are no bodies at the site anymore, because they have been eaten away by time, poignant reminders of their existence can be found–shoes perfectly spaced on the ocean floor, laces still tied, for example. These fragile remains have been compromised forever by greed.

The expedition that finally found the Titanic was a joint French and Americans group Both sides expressed a clear desire to see the wreck left undisturbed, and in fact left a plaque at the ship commemorating their expedition and hoping to see the site left untouched. In 1986, the United States Congress passed a resolution agreeing with this, that the site should be left undisturbed as a monument. But no other nation could agree, and the site began to be looted as soon as salvors could figure out where it was. (Despite the fact that the expedition deliberately misstated the coordinates of the wreck to avoid this very event.) Because there are few currents that far down, the pieces of the ship and its contents were initially found in the same positions they came to rest in on the early hours of 15 April, 1912. The original explorers who found the wreck respected it as a grave site and as a scientific opportunity–careful study could be undertaken to determine the true cause of the sinking, and film of the site could be brought up. As anyone who has seen footage and still photos of the site knows, it’s an amazing place. Unfortunately, many of the images which have come to be icons of the site are simply images now, thanks to eager salvors who have been willing to destroy the wreck in a quest for cheap thrills. The iconic picture of the main mast toppled on the foredeck is only a memory now, thanks to the zealous of a company which destroyed the mast and crow’s nest in order to extract the telephone inside. The few remaining survivors who were around when the site began to be looted spoke out very strongly against it and the salvors, but like many survivors found their wishes disregarded.

I am a firm believer in leaving graves of all sizes as they are. Sometimes this is not an option–in the case of the World Trade Centre, for example, crews had to move in to remove the smoldering and unsafe material, not only to make that section of New York habitable, but to clear the site and surrounding area for whatever might come. Likewise with airline and other transit disasters–wreckage must be cleared and bodies identified, although one might choose to erect a memorial later for people to come and visit. Or in the instance of mass graves from Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, and other places, where family members might wish to care for their dead. (Though one of the most powerful and disturbing memorials in Rwanda is a house filled with the bones of the dead, left as it was found.) In these cases pragmatism must rule, although the wreckage and remains are treated with respect and care, not carted all over the country so that people might marvel at chunks of staircases, pieces of chairs, silverware, and other accoutrements of human existence. In the case of the Titanic, two memorials could have been said to exist–the physical site and the hours of footage taken of the wreck and surrounding debris field, making the wreck accessible to all.

It also troubles me when I read of archaeological expeditions dismantling sacred burial sites which are thousands of years old so that visitors to the Smithsonian can see mummies. While most of these expeditions treat the sites they work in with respect and are motivated by science and an interest in lost cultures, ultimately they make a great deal of money from exploiting the dead. While the body may be an empty shell, the things that surround death and the body are (or were) sacred to the people who were present at the death. Someone who loved and cared for the dead arranged items around the body which might be useful in the afterlife, wove a shroud, carved furniture, and took care of the myriad details. Imagine archaeological expeditions in 4500 digging up your mother’s grave and dragging her all over the nation (or whatever it is then) in order to “educate” people. I imagine that you’d be somewhat annoyed to think of her sacred space being disturbed in pursuit of the almighty dollar (or whatever it is then). While I appreciate the desire and quest for information, I wish we could leave gravesite the way they were, out of respect for the past.

Imagine if they were auctioning off pieces of soil from the battlefield at Gettysburg, or dismantling the great pyramids so that they could be shown all over the world. The power and magic of these places lies in going to them and walking where the people who lived and died in them once walked, not in seeing pieces of them abstracted from the whole. For those who can’t travel, or for wreckage in extreme places (like, for example, two miles below the ocean), photographs and film footage convey a sense of place. The objects which can be found at gravesites, especially more recent ones, don’t have value because of what they are, but because of where they are–so why not leave them there? I view the dismantling and looting of gravesites as wrong, although others might disagree with me. One can also see a powerful dynamic in place, especially when looking at third world gravesites–first world nations come in, loot the site, and leave with artifacts in tow. Only recently has protest arisen over this practice, with the plundered nations demanding returns of their sacred and historical artifacts. But the collections of places like the Smithsonian and the British Museum testify that this imbalance has yet to be rectified.

Perhaps I am merely buying into the cult of the dead here. But I am a believer in treating the remains of others as I would like my own to be treated, and I know that however fantastically or historically I die, I would want my body to be dealt with in a loving and respectful matter, and I would be furious to think of people exploiting what remains of me for worldly profit. Leave the dead where they lie, I say, in peace.

The Titanic is slowly melting into the sea, giving way to the pressures of sea water, corrosion, and tiny organisms. This seems appropriate to me, that in several decades there won’t be much at the site, though we have images to remember it be. This is the natural order of things, dissolution and renewal.