Class after death

Aside from an urge to see Titanic and A Night to Remember one more time, I have no great personal interest in the 100th anniversary of the big ship’s demise. But it does bring to mind a trip I took to Nova Scotia in the mid-Nineties, which included a stay in Halifax and a visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. I went to the museum with no particular expectations and was startled to find the permanent exhibit of artifacts taken from the scene of the disaster: deck chairs and more personal items, plucked from the frigid water by the rescue crews that departed from Halifax. The remains of most of the victims were buried in three Halifax cemeteries.

James Cameron’s 1997 film has taken plenty of hits for its sometimes clumsy storytelling and cauliflower-eared dialogue, but even if he did allow the film to be released with Celine Dion dripping all over the end credits, Cameron did plenty of things right. No other Titanic film (and it’s surprising to see how many there have been) deals so unblinkingly with the way class affected each passenger’s chances of survival as the ocean liner went down.

The class distinctions continued even after death. The bodies of first class passengers taken from the ocean were returned in coffins, while second-class and steerage corpses were transported in canvas sacks. I hadn’t known that before visiting the Maritime Museum display, and it’s still one of the first things I think about whenever the disaster is mentioned. A class system so relentless that it could even take away the dignity of the deceased. It does make one a little less patient with all the mythology about stiff upper lips.

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