Monday, April 15, 2013

Titanic 101-Year Anniversary Graves

I’m posting this blog on April 15, the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. With all the death-related stuff I write, it’s about time I jumped aboard the good ship Titanic, that giant floating coffin of humanity.  What spurred my interest, actually, was seeing the “Titanic – The Artifact Exhibition,” at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute last week. (The exhibit actually closed April 7, 2013, but is traveling around the United States – click here for the schedule of locations on the website

Franklin Institute (Philadelphia) banner add for exhibition

Sort of related to that is the fact that Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia has a few Titanic-related graves, and they give educational tours on the subject. I’ve never been on one, but I thank Laurel Hill’s Gwen Kaminski for this NBC video clip, "Titanic Passengers Laid to Rest at Philly Cemetery," in which she is interviewed on the subject.

So, April 15, 2013 is the 101st anniversary of that hideous catastrophe, when on April 15, 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard the British ship on its maiden voyage, 1502 people died. Two of them are buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, as is one of the survivors.

Dulles mausoleum at Laurel Hill Cemetery
The Dulles' crypt
One of those who died, Philadelphian William Crothers Dulles, lies in a mausoleum in Laurel Hill Cemetery, overlooking the Schuylkill River and Kelly Drive. Ironically, the stained glass window inside depicts Christ calming the sea, so that Peter and the other apostles in their fishing boat will not be afraid. (A close-up photo of this stained glass image is seen at the beginning of this article.) Dulles' body was one of the only 328 bodies recovered of the 1502 that died.

The Titanic exhibition at the Franklin Institute was a theatrical and educational presentation in addition to an extensive display of artifacts salvaged from the wreck (it was discovered in 1985 at a depth of 12, 415 feet (more than two miles!) below the ocean’s surface. I suppose my overall reaction to the exhibit was that it was intensely creepy and reminded me of death – which is why I decided to write this blog.

All my life, I've really had no more than a passing interest in the Titanic. I only paid money to see the exhibit because I took my three-year-old daughter to the Franklin Institute that day, for a spring break jaunt (all her classmates no doubt were in Fort Lauderdale). The first thing that creeped me out was the distribution of the “boarding passes” by hostesses as you entered the exhibit. Being handed a boarding pass to a doomed vessel gave me a weird feeling.

I didn’t know this until after I got home, but printed on the back of the pass was passenger information. I glanced at it when it was handed to me and just assumed all the passes were the same. They were not. If I had paid attention during your tour of the exhibit I would have known that there was a big wall of names at the very end (before you were dumped into the gift shop, a la Disney). You could find the name of the person on your boarding pass to see if they made it out of the disaster alive. I’m kind of glad I missed this aspect of the tour. Even now I get an unsettling feeling just thinking about it.

Widener mausoleum, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
One of the other Titanic people buried at Laurel Hill is Eleanor Widener. She is buried in the large “Widener” mausoleum on “Millionaire’s Row” (a stretch of grand mausoleums of the wealthy), overlooking Hunting Park Avenue and the Schuylkill River. Eleanor survived the disaster, but her husband George and their 27-year-old son Harry did not survive. Their bodies were never recovered .and their George Widener and his 27-year-old son Harry did not survive and their bodies were never recovered. According to the NBC article, "Philly Cemetery Holds Stories of Titanic," Eleanor and her maid boarded life boat #4, the last to leave Titanic. There were only life boats enough for half the passengers. “Eleanor died in 1937 and her body lies in the Widener Mausoleum along with two bronze cenotaphs, or empty tombs, which serve as memorials to husband George and son Harry.

Our two Laurel Hill Titanic people were both buried in expensive mausoleums, you may notice. Many of the passengers aboard the Titanic were extremely wealthy. But wealthy or not, when you walk down  the stateroom hallway in the exhibit, you realize how death is the great leveler. Seeing the doors of the passengers’ rooms gave me the very claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, with nowhere to go. You wonder how the Titanic’s passengers felt as they opened their doors and saw people running down the tilted hallway …  then of course, the whole idea brings to mind the 1972 shipwreck disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure (watch the movie trailer here).

Olive Potter's headstone, Laurel Hill
Most people lost all their belongings, some of which you can see on the website. Money, jewelry, and clothing is very odd to see, knowing it was brought up from the depths of the wreck. There are the ship’s telegraph booths (for the passengers’ convenience), “waterproof” steel doors, gaslight fixtures, and fine china (all Royal Doulton, I noticed). Among the passengers who survived were Lily Potter and her daughter Olive of Mount Airy (Pennsylvania). They boarded a life boat and were among the 705 survivors. Both are buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, in a serene family plot overlooking the Schuylkill River.

Lily Potter's headstone
Funny how all three of the Laurel Hill Titanic-related burials are so near the water. You would think the survivors would not want anything to do with water again, either in life or in death. I mean, I couldn’t even fathom the thought of standing on the light-projected outline of the lifeboat in the exhibit. I wonder how the catastrophe affected the survivors, whenever they saw something that reminded them of that fateful night? Even though the thought of standing in the lifeboat outline totally weirded me out, I playfully urged my daughter Olivia to run over and stand on the light pattern. It scared her, and she refused.

Replica of the Titanic's luxurious central staircase (ref.)

The other odd feeling I got was at the pay-to-have-your-photo-taken opportunity on the ship’s reconstructed grand wooden staircase. It was only $6.50, I think, so I climbed the stairs and the photographer took of photo of me holding daughter Olivia. The idea was that you later pick up and pay for your photo in the gift shop. After having the photo taken next to the angel on the stairway's center post, I thought about how unsavory this whole idea is, to transform the largest civilian maritime disaster of all time into a carnival. This was like getting your family photo taken with Goofy at Disney World. No, more accurately, it was like standing in front of your grandfather’s casket at the viewing, mugging for the camera. The angel, by the way, was actually on display as one of the retrieved artifacts. I never picked up the souvenir photo.

References and Further Information:

Watch the NBC video of Laurel Hill Cemetery, Titanic Passengers Laid to Rest at Philly Cemetery
RMS Titanic, Inc. – The Artifact Exhibition
Titanic on Wikipedia
Franklin Institute website