Everyone knows the story of RMS Titanic: The largest ship ever built, on its maiden voyage, hits an iceberg and sinks. There weren’t enough lifeboats on board, resulting in more than 1,500 passengers and crew dying. But how many people know the story of what happened after the Carpathia rescued the survivors?
The CS Mackay-Bennett, a cable repair ship, was asked by White Star Line to retrieve bodies. The ship’s home port was Halifax, Nova Scotia. It had aboard a clergyman, an embalmer, ice, coffins and embalming fluid.
It left on April 17, 1912, but bad weather meant it did not reach the wreckage site until the 20th. When the crew reached the site, life jackets bobbing on the water looked like a flock of seagulls.
Mackay-Bennett‘s lifeboats were lowered, and the crew manually pulled bodies out of the water.
NO. 154. - MALE. - ESTIMATED AGE, 32. BROWN - HAIR AND MOUSTACHE. FALSE UPPER TEETH.CLOTHING - Blue jacket; grey vest; black pants.
NO MARKS ON BODY OR CLOTHING.
It quickly became apparent that there weren’t enough supplies on board. Canadian law, however, dictated that no bodies could enter port without first being embalmed. The vessel’s crew had a difficult decision to make. They decided that only first and second-class victims would be embalmed. Third-class passengers would be buried at sea. Of those who were embalmed, only those in first-class were given a coffin; second-class victims were wrapped in canvas.
Other ships were dispatched with additional embalming supplies, canvas and clergy.
Identification and Burial
Of the 306 bodies that were recovered, 190 were returned to Halifax and unloaded at Coal Wharf or Flagship Wharf. From there, they were taken to Mayflower Curling Club. It was the only building large enough or cold enough to serve as a temporary morgue. The club would be destroyed five years later in the Halifax Explosion.
The only third-class victim who was not buried at sea was a toddler. The crew of Mackay-Bennett didn’t have the heart to do it. The boy’s body was brought back to Halifax where it was buried on May 4. The ship’s crew as well as a large portion of Halifax’s population attended.
Once bodies were taken to the Mayflower, a system was developed for identifying and claiming bodies. Only 59 were claimed. The remainder were buried in three Halifax cemeteries, identified only by their identification number.
The gravestones were paid for by White Star Line.
Photos and documents of victim’s recovery can be found on Titanic in Nova Scotia.
Updated: 23 October 2020