New York State Funeral Directors Association

Funerals for veterans are emotional, symbolic and heartfelt.

They serve not only to memorialize those who sacrificed their lives but also as an expression of a society’s love for those who give their all for their country.

There’s a lot more to do -- we’re about 100 years late in recognizing hundreds and thousands of veterans worldwide who never had a funeral, much less a recognized final resting place.

We’re commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I that took place between 1914 and 1918, and it was during this massive worldwide disaster when these patriotic souls were lost to the depths of the sea.

There are no cemeteries in the oceans. There are no buoys on the surface of the waters marking the sites, deep below, where hundreds of naval vessels and their crew wound up.

It’s about time people started talking about and addressing this shortcoming in human kind’s recognition of its war dead, and I’m grateful to an Australian law professor for pointing it out.

UNESCO

Cover photo: Diver over a sunken barge near Gallipoli © Harun Ozdas The eerie-looking cover on “The Underwater Cultural Heritage from World War I” says a lot – it shows a diver hovering above a sunken barge.

I wonder if it’s the final resting place of military personnel.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, published this set of papers in July 2015. It accounts for a meeting of scientists who met in Belgium the year before to discuss the 100th anniversary of WWI.

It’s a powerful starting point for discussing what was left behind after the First World War.

It brings to light the maltreatment that’s befallen underwater remnants of this massive conflict.

And it highlights the absence of recognition for hundreds and thousands of war dead who haven’t been properly memorialized.

MEMORIALS

There are hundreds of cemeteries and dozens of monuments dedicated to the millions of people killed in World War I.

We haven’t forgotten most of those who died in World War I, and I think people have put a lot of work into memorials for those who perished on land.

The 1916 World War I battles on the Somme River in France endured for some five months and left roughly 1 million people dead on both sides.

In and around this river valley, some 400 different cemeteries serve as the final resting place of 150,000 Commonwealth soldiers – the “good guys,” I’d call them.

There were another 100,000 service members killed in this set of battles who were never found – they are memorialized and honored at six different war memorials that identify each of them by name.

Although these brave souls never got an individual grave site, they are remembered and commemorated.

There are, fortunately, numerous examples of these memorials all over the world.

However, many naval service members haven’t been simply forgotten. It’s worse than that.

Their final resting places – shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea – have been plundered by salvage operations conducted by the greedy seeking the premium steel that’s apparently hard to find.

The steel is considered precious because the steel created after the Second World War is contaminated – as I suspect all of us are – by radiation from nuclear bombs.

CALL FOR RECOGNITION

I realized this when I read the paper from one of the Belgium conference’s contributors, Craig Forrest, a professor of law at the University of Queensland in Australia.

The USS Buenaventura, torpedoed during WWI, sunk off the coast of Spain on September 16, 1918. Forrest explains there is no worldwide set of guidelines nor agreed-upon steps laid out to recognize and memorialize the veterans who rest on the sea floor.

“The concept of maritime war graves simply does not exist in international law,” Forrest says as he explains the lonely history of these poor souls who were killed at sea and left there.

This isn’t a situation where there’s a few here and a few there.

Forrest said one of the biggest WWI naval battles off the coast of Denmark led to the sinking of 25 ships. More than 8,600 sailors were killed in this naval confrontation that took place from May 31 to June 1, 1916.

That was just one of the naval battles.

Forrest lists some of the others: 1,031 people were killed when the HMS Invincible was sunk. Only six survived.

Another 1,246 were killed when the HMS Queen Mary was sunk. Only 20 survived. The list goes on.

Salvage divers, like vultures, started hacking away at these underwater gravesites in the 1960s – including the HMS Indefatigable that sunk, leaving only 5 survivors out of a crew of 281.

“… the fact that they contained the remains of those who perished appears to have been of no concern,” Forrest wrote in his contributing article “Towards the Recognition of Maritime War Graves in International Law.”

I don’t know how to fix this failure. I think at the very least we should buy some buoys with some sort of symbol on them to float on the surface of the waters.

That way mariners can bow their heads or tip their hats or say a prayer knowing they’re floating over a massive final resting place deserving of respect and reverence.

 


EdsPhotoEd Munger
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association