How the bodies of the dead were recovered after the Titanic sank
- After the Titanic was fatally wounded by its impact with an iceberg, it took less than three hours to sink.
- The lucky few made it onto lifeboats and inflatables, but the rest were left to their fate.
- Most of those who entered the ice-cold waters would never survive. So what happened to their bodies?
In our previous episode of this mini-series on the Titanic's dead, we looked at how and why many of the passengers died. Here, we'll look at what happened to the dead.
Were they recovered? What happened to those who weren't?
Let's find out.
How were bodies recovered from the water after the Titanic disaster?
After the Titanic sank, a huge search and rescue operation began. Several ships were immediately sent to the area where the disaster happened. The Carpathia, the closest ship to the Titanic when it went down, arrived on the scene more than an hour after she sank and began searching for survivors. The Californian, which was farther away when she heard the distress call, arrived about five hours after that.
Several ships were involved in recovering survivors and the bodies of those who died. The RMS Carpathia, the closest vessel to the Titanic when it sank, was the first to arrive on the scene. Over 700 survivors were rescued from the lifeboats by the Carpathia, who provided them with medical care and lodging.
Aside from the Carpathia, several other ships were dispatched to the scene to assist with body recovery. The Mackay-Bennett, a cable-laying ship, was chartered by the White Star Line to retrieve as many bodies as possible. Several days after the sinking, the Mackay-Bennett arrived on the scene and spent the next two weeks searching for and recovering bodies from the water. The ship was outfitted with coffins, ice, and embalming supplies, and the crew were paid double their normal rates.
She arrived at the wreck site on the 20th of April, 1912, and managed to recover 306 bodies. Of those, 116 third-class passengers were buried at sea due to a lack of preservation supplies, only 56 of whom could be identified. Even so, she returned to the port of Halifax, Canada, with about 190 bodies on board, including the body of John Jacob Aster IV, for whose recovery the crew split a reward of $100,000.
Other ships involved in the recovery effort included the Minia, Montmagny, and Algerine, all chartered by the White Star Line to assist in the search and recovery of bodies. The CGS Acadia, a Canadian government vessel, also helped in the recovery effort.
The recovery effort was brutal and often gruesome, as the cold water and strong currents made finding and retrieving the bodies difficult.
"With the exception of about 10 bodies that had received serious injuries, their looks were calm and peaceful," -explained Dr. Thomas Armstrong, Ship’s Surgeon on the Mackay-Bennett at the time.
So, not a job for the faint-hearted.
The ships involved in the recovery operation used various methods to collect the bodies, including dragging grappling hooks along the ocean floor, pulling bodies from the water with long poles with clips attached, and even diving to retrieve bodies that had sunk to the bottom.
In the days and weeks following the Titanic disaster, more than 300 bodies were recovered from the water. Many of the bodies that were not recovered remain entombed in the ship's wreckage at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
How much were the recovery ships paid for their service?
The Titanic's owner, White Star Line, paid some of the ships involved in recovering bodies from the disaster. The White Star Line chartered the Mackay-Bennett, in particular, to recover as many bodies as possible from the water. The Atlantic Cable Company owned the ship, which was used to lay telegraph cables before being repurposed for the recovery operation.
The White Star Line paid the ship's captain, F. H. Lardner, £500 (approximately £60,000 today) to conduct the recovery operation.
Other ships involved in the recovery effort, such as the CGS Acadia, Montmagny, and Algerine, were not explicitly chartered by White Star Line to recover bodies.
It is unclear how much they were compensated for their efforts, but presumably, they were at least reimbursed for any costs.
It is worth noting, however, that the primary motivation for the recovery effort was a sense of duty to recover the bodies of those who died in the disaster. The ships involved in the recovery operation put their lives in danger to find and retrieve the bodies, and the crews were deeply affected by the tragedy. Many of those involved saw the recovery effort as a way to provide comfort and closure to the families of the deceased.
One of the bodies recovered by the Mackay-Bennett was that of a 19-month-old child referred to as "The Unknown Child" (and now known to be Sidney Leslie Goodwin). Despite being a third-class passenger, and thus destined for burial at sea, the crew kept the body on board and paid for the burial and headstone monument themselves. The entire city of Halifax turned out for the burial.
What happened to the bodies after being recovered?
When the bodies of Titanic passengers were recovered from the water, they were treated with the utmost dignity and respect, given the circumstances. The bodies were typically taken aboard the ships involved in the recovery operation and subjected to various measures to help preserve them for the journey back to shore.
Identification was one of the first steps in the treatment of the bodies. The recovered bodies were typically laid out on the ship's deck for identification, and any personal belongings discovered on or near the body were recorded and bagged for safekeeping.
Following that, the bodies were typically embalmed or chemically treated to help prevent decomposition during transport. This was especially important for bodies that would be transported over long distances or that might be delayed in reaching their destination.
In many cases, the bodies were transported in wooden coffins. The coffins were personalized with the deceased's name and any other available identifying information. They were unloaded and taken to a temporary mortuary when the ship arrived at the port. The bodies were then prepared for burial or transportation to the deceased's families.
In some cases, the bodies were buried at sea; in others, they were brought back to shore and buried in a cemetery or other suitable location.
According to titanicfacts.net, CS Mackay-Bennett was instructed to treat the bodies differently depending on whether the victims were crew or First, Second, or Third class passengers. This is because there was not enough space or embalming supplies onboard to store all of the recovered bodies and because there were legal requirements that any bodies had to be embalmed before entering port.
The bodies of first-class passengers were embalmed, placed in coffins, and stored in the rear cable locker. Second-class passengers and crew were embalmed and wrapped in canvas before being placed on ice in the forward cable locker. Third-class passengers were generally buried at sea.
Why were some bodies buried at sea?
Of those who did not return to shore, Titanic victims' bodies were buried at sea for various reasons. One of the primary reasons was that the bodies were often badly decomposed or damaged from their time in the water. In such cases, transporting the body back to shore for a traditional funeral and burial may not have been possible.
Under these difficult circumstances, burial at sea was seen as a way to provide at least some dignity and respect for the deceased. Another reason for sea burial was practicality.
Many of the ships involved in the recovery operation could not hold many bodies for an extended period. The embalming and preservation of the bodies for transport were time-consuming and costly, and in some cases, it may not have been possible to do so for all of the recovered bodies.
In such cases, burial at sea provided a respectful and dignified way to dispose of the remains.
What was the last body to be recovered?
The last body recovered was James McGrady, a saloon steward aboard the RMS Titanic. His body was recovered by the Algerine crew, which spent about three weeks at the site of the sinking.
McGrady, who was about 27 when he died, was born around 1895 to parents James Sr., a railway worker, and Ann Higgins. The elder McGrady died before his son was born, and Higgins was later remarried to a local farmer named Tom Savage.
When he was 16 years old, the younger McGrady went to sea. When he boarded the Titanic on April 6, 1912, he gave his address as the Platform Tavern in Southampton, England. His last ship had been the Oceanic, where he worked as a first-class steward and received a monthly wage of £3 and 15 schillings.
And that is your lot for today.
The Titanic's sinking was a tragic and profound event that shook the world. Over 1,500 passengers and crew members died in the disaster, leaving bereaved families and a legacy of grief. The recovery of the bodies of those who died in the tragedy was problematic and often gruesome, but it provided closure and respect for those who died.
While many of the unrecovered bodies remain entombed in the Titanic wreckage at the bottom of the North Atlantic, the recovery of those discovered provided a way to pay tribute to the victims and honor their memory. The story of the Titanic and its passengers and crew continues to captivate people worldwide, and the memory of those who perished in the disaster will live on.
May they all rest in peace, wherever they may be.