DEATH AND BURIAL AT SEA
The dead did not have far to travel in eighteenth- and early-nineteenthcentury America. Most cemeteries evoked the living populations of the towns in which they were located: clusters of relatives bordering neighbors and various town figures. The rural cemetery movement, which began in the 1830s as American cities expanded, promoted lush, beautifully landscaped cemeteries that served as America’s first public parks as well as places of resort, not just for the relatives of the deceased but for tourists and the public. Burial grounds became a place for meditation as well as a site for grief and remembrance of the bereaved; before the eighteenth century, writes Philippe Ariès, “the pious or melancholy visit to the tomb of a dear one was an unknown act.”1 The word “cemetery,” meaning “sleeping place,” came into more common use with the new burial modes and suggested that death was a temporary rest rather than a permanent finality.2 Cemeteries provided a space for meditation and consolation and offered the illusion that the dead were still home, still part of a community, still lovingly visited and tended. Allowing the living to experience a geographical intimacy with death, nineteenth-century cemeteries replaced the absent body with the tangible presence (and the promise of continuity) of a memorial.
For the long-voyaging sailor of the nineteenth century, however, the comfort of such object reminders of death, in the form of a static landscape or memorial to which a mourner could return, was generally inaccessible. The bodies of departed seamen (those who did not drown) were usually wrapped in their hammocks, weighted, and dumped into the ocean. The alternative, for some, was an impermanent grave on an unfamiliar shore half a world from their families. For sailors, death was a special “subject for contemplation”; yet unlike mourners on land, sailors lacked an object to contemplate.3 Seamen’s narrative response to death at sea took two primary forms, depending on