Funnily enough, today, the day after Osama bin Laden’s body was slipped into the ocean, I attended a fascinating talk about burial and the sea at the 92d Street Y in Manhattan.   The speaker was Professor Emeritus J. Joseph Edgette 0f Widener University.  He is the university’s Emeritus Folklorist as well (cool – we should get an honorary folklorist for City Tech)Professor Edgette also gives tours at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where he highlights the graves of people who have a connection with the sea.

The Professor began his talk by distinguishing between the various terminologies used on tombstones:

Died at Sea – means the decedent died on the water.  This is what is says on the tombstone of a woman at Woodlawn who had a heart attack and died on a cruise.

Buried at Sea – means a decedent’s body or ashes are put into the ocean.

Lucky Osama.   According to the Professor, many people wish to be buried at sea.  Actually, I once drafted a will for a client who wanted the Neptune Society    to dispose of her ashes in the ocean.  The Professor told us that the longest living survivor of the Titanic, Millvina Dean, (who died in 2009 – she’d been 9 months old when her family boarded the ship) wanted her ashes to be scattered at the  spot where the Titanic went down.   That was too difficult, so they scattered her at Southampton, the Titanic’s port of embarkation.

Lost at Sea –  means the decedent’s body cannot be found.  There were many on the Titanic whose bodies were never recovered.  Dr. Edgette is writing a book on the exact location of the remains of every person on the Titanic.  He told us that the bodies of people who had been on deck when the ship sank were recovered, because they floated up.  But those who remained in cabins sank to the bottom and all that remains of them are their shoes.  The Professor told us he’d seen photos of the shoes (inside the cabins 2.5 miles down) that have never been released to the public.  Sometimes when people are lost at sea, their family will commission a cenotaph for them.  A cenotaph is an “empty grave”  memorial that commemorates a decedent (or a group of people) whose remains are elsewhere.

For those of you considering a cruise, here are the Leading Sea Hazards:

Icebergs (only 10% of icebergs are above the water)

Coral Reefs and Shoals

Fog – see Andrea Doria




Speaking of fire, the Professor told us a wild story about a ship called The General Slocum.

In 1904, the ship with 53 crew and 1335 passengers (mostly women and children), including a whole churchful of congregants, went on an excursion on the East River here in NYC. Somehow there was hay below deck and it caught fire.  The captain of the ship thought he could extinguish the fire by moving faster, which of course, made the fire worse.   People were paralyzed with fear, the fire hoses were defective and crumbled, the life preservers were rotten and useless and 1021 people died, right across from Rikers Island!  City Hall was draped in black (why don’t we do that any more?). It was the worst loss of life in a NYC disaster  until 9/11 and I’d never heard of it – have you?

The captain (who had lost his sight and a leg in the fire) was indicted, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing prison.  His sentence was commuted after 10 years.

A lot of the victims of the General Slocum are at Woodlawn as is the captain of another boat who rescued a lot of the victims.

Although he died on land and is buried in the Bronx,  Herman Meville surely had a connection with the sea (Moby Dick/Billy Budd).  His grave is at Woodlawn and it’s famous not only for being his grave, but also for being the drop spot for the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping ransom!

After the Professor spoke, another dude from Friends of The Woodlawn Cemetery gave a short shout out about the awesomeness of the cemetery.  I got the sense that Woodlawn is trying to become the next Pere Lachaise (the famous Paris cemetery that is a huge tourist attraction).  Woodlawn offers guided tours with various themes,  audio tours, bird watching walks and even jazz concerts (Duke Ellington is buried there). There sure are plenty of famous people’s graves to see – Fiorello LaGuardia, Celia Cruz, Irving Berlin, Herman Melville, JC Penney, Jay Gould, George M. Cohan and Joesph Pulitzer, to name a few.  And, the good news for New Yorkers is that there’s room for many more residents (since the rest of  NYC cemeteries are mostly full up)!




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