Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nearer, My God, To Thee

Today marks the centennial of the sinking of RMS Titanic. On its maiden voyage with over 2,200 passengers and crew, it departed Southampton, England, on April 10, and after briefs stops in Cherbourg, France and Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, it set off across the North Atlantic to New York. At approximately 11:40pm on the evening of April 14, it struck an iceberg off the Grand Banks, some 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland. At 2:20am the following morning, the Titanic sank to its watery grave and over 1,500 souls - the rich and the famous as well as the poor and unknown - perished with her.

A lot is being said and written about this lamentable tragedy and I am not going to rehash it all here. Just a few months ago, however, during a visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was introduced to a chapter of the Titanic saga about which I was wholly unfamiliar. Today I want to share this with you. I was going to write and post this story from Halifax, but I decided it would be more appropriate to share it as we mark the centennial of this greatest maritime disaster in history.

I am reminded of that touching scene in James Cameron’s 1997 film, which was borrowed from its 1958 predecessor, “A Night to Remember,” when the ship’s string ensemble led by Wallace Hartley, having played through the early morning hours as Titanic began to slowly slip below the waves, chose to play one final song - “Nearer, My God, to Thee” - instead of saving themselves. The strains of this lovely hymn play as the audience watches various passengers, realizing their fate, prepare for their deaths while others frantically race about the deck as the icy waters of the North Atlantic wash over them and RMS Titanic passes from the British registry. The playing of this hymn is one of the more popular legends originating with the sinking of Titanic. Some choose to believe it. Others don’t, claiming that the ensemble played “Autumn,” or an Archibald Joyce waltz. I am among the former, probably because I have always loved this hymn and it captures so well the victims’ final hours.

Soon, there was nothing left of the great ship and its passengers and crew other than a few life boats carrying the 705 survivors, some surface detritus, and the frozen corpses of those who were unable to find space in a lifeboat. Less than two hours later, RMS Carpathia, bound from New York to Mediterranean ports, arrived at the site of the sinking, took the survivors aboard, and transported them to their final destination in New York. The dead were left where they died.

Two days after the sinking, and once The White Star Line had finally admitted the full extent of the disaster, it dispatched the first of four Canadian-flagged vessels, three of them from Halifax and one from St Johns, Newfoundland, to recover the bodies. The cable ship CS Mackay-Benett was the first to arrive on site, on April 20, and over the course of the next five days it recovered 306 bodies, 116 of which were, after an appropriate religious service, buried at sea because there were not enough coffins and embalming fluid on board. It returned to Halifax with 190 bodies after being relieved on April 26 by the cable ship CS Minia. Over the next eight days it recovered an additional 17 bodies, two of which were buried at sea. CGS Montmagny departed Halifax on May 6 and returned with three bodies having buried one at sea. SS Algerine sailed from St. Johns on May 16 and located a single body before the recovery was suspended a month after the sinking, having located only 328 bodies of the approximately 1500 people who died. The sea took the rest of them.

The 209 bodies brought to Halifax were unloaded on the harbor waterfront. Those bodies still wrapped in canvas shrouds for the journey, were place in coffins stacked on the wharf, and the grim cargo was transported to a temporary morgue at the former site of the Mayflower Curling Club, on Agricola Street (now a downtown parking facility), the only building large and cold enough to accommodate the bodies. There undertakers from all over Nova Scotia prepared the bodies for burial. Families claimed 59 of the identified bodies. Three local cemeteries are now the final resting places of the remaining 150 bodies recovered and brought to Halifax. They were buried here between May 3 and June 12, 1912 after funerals were conducted in churches throughout the city.

On a cold morning back in early January, as an icy rain fell, I visited the Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax’s North end. Here, on a wooded hillside, is a plot where 121 victims of the April 14-15, 1912 sinking of RMS Titanic are interred under rows of gray memorial stones paid for by the White Star Line. Many of the victims have never been identified, and perhaps the best known of these graves is that of “The Unknown Child.” Only in the past decade has forensic testing made it possible to identify the child as an English boy who perished with his entire family. Even during the winter this singular grave is surrounded by flowers, stuffed animals and various toys. There are an additional 29 Titanic victims buried at the Mount Olivet Cemetery, and others at the Baron de Hirsch Jewish cemetery adjacent to Fairview Lawn Cemetery.

Wallace Hartley and the other members of the eight-piece string ensemble went to their deaths the night they played as Titanic sunk beneath them. Hartley’s body, along with that of his fellow violinist, John “Jock” Law Hume, was recovered by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, Hartley’s violin case still strapped to his back. His body was eventually returned to Britain for a hero’s funeral at which his favorite hymn escorted him to his grave. I found Hume’s grave at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, in Halifax, far from his home in Dumfries, Scotland.

This morning, at 2:20am ship's time – 0547 GMT or 12:47am EDT – a minister on board the MS Balmoral, a luxury cruise ship which sailed to the site of the sinking this past week to commemorate the Titanic centennial, lead prayers while floral wreaths were cast into the sea and a shipboard band, regardless of the veracity of the legend, played the hymn one more time.

Though like the wanderer, the sun goes down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone,
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.

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