Halifax, Nova Scotia on the eastern seaboard of Canada is a vibrant, modern community, but quite separated from most everyone and everything on the North American continent west of it. Even so, every year over 160,000 people travel to Halifax for the sole purpose of visiting an obscure little Victorian graveyard. They visit several rows of century old gravestones and most often place flowers on Joseph Dawson, who died on April 15, 1912…as did 121 others buried around him. And the key is, he is not the person they think he is. The person everyone believes him to be is actually imaginary.
This is the power of story, of branding, of image. Once well set, it holds us in its power and shapes our thoughts and emotions and actions.
The truth is that Halifax was the closest seaport to the spot where the Titanic sank on the cold, dark night of April, 15, 1912. Rich and poor, famous and ordinary, young and old, of the 2,200 passengers on the ill fated ship, 1503 perished in the icy waters. Only 338 bodies were ever recovered; a very deep and heartfelt tragedy.
People have flocked to the small, plain headstone for years, leaving flowers and love notes at what they believe is the final resting place of the man who inspired Leonardo DiCaprio’s doomed character, Jack Dawson, in the 1997 film “Titanic.” And you can see why: The inscription reads “J. Dawson died April 15, 1912.”
And that is the power of story — perception. The grave does belong to a victim of the world’s best-known shipwreck, he was not a handsome artist named Jack who won his passage in a poker game, but an ordinary engine-room worker named Joseph who probably had little time for onboard dalliances. The producer of the film denies any connection between the crewman and the fictional heartthrob. Yet, people want to believe…and the flowers keep arriving.
Mr. Dawson is one of 121 people from the Titanic buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, their graves arranged in the shape of a ship’s hull. It is the largest collection of Titanic graves in the world. An additional 29 are buried in two more local cemeteries.
This somber stewardship came about largely by chance: Halifax happened to be the closest major port with good rail connections when the ship sank, 700 nautical miles away in the North Atlantic.
Three ships sent from Halifax to find the Titanic’s dead recovered more than 300 bodies. About 100 were buried at sea, but families who could afford the cost had 59 others transported elsewhere by rail. The rest were buried locally, some of them attended to by a funeral home that is still in business.
Thus, over a century later, Titanic devotees travel to Halifax for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which holds a large collection of artifacts from the wreck, including a deck chair, a balustrade from the ship’s main staircase, and the leather shoes of a drowned toddler who remained unidentified until 2007.
About 160,000 people visit the museum each year. Occasionally, Fairview Lawn Cemetery becomes so inundated with tour buses that it bars them from the grounds; visitors on foot are still welcome.
The Titanic story is the greatest self-perpetuating phenomenon in human history. The Titanic is one of those things that’s never going to leave our consciousness.
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