The cold grave that is the deep, deep sea

There still is no (confirmed) trace of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. The last few days, however, saw a number of reports that focused on (potential) debris in the Indian Ocean, and the continuous silence of flight systems and crew, passengers, or potential hijackers would appear to render a crash into the ocean the most likely scenario at this stage.

One can only imagine the ordeal relatives of the occupants of the plane continue to go through – the absence of answers, of certainty, of closure must be deeply unsettling (and hard to understand, to say the least, in age that has become the paragon of data collection and world-wide surveillance).

The desire to locate the final resting place of one’s relatives, the wish to mark it in a religious or quasi-religious manner, appears to be deeply rooted in human nature – what else (apart from the rather worldly issue of insurance claims, sadly, as well as the – mostly unrealistic – hope to find survivors at long last) would be the explanation for the expensive hunt for the remains of those who were lost in plain crashes in remote areas?

In the ancient world, the hope to retrieve the bodies of victims of shipwrecks, and to bury them, must have been rather limited to begin with. Yet, as inscriptions show, it was not completely out of the question. The following text from Autun is one such example (CIL XIII 2718):

Eufronia Euf[r(oni)] | filia et m[at(er)] | naufragio |necta nat[a] | pri(die) Kal(endas) No[v(embres)] | percepit | III Id(us) April(es) | decessit pri(die) Kal(endas) Mai(as).

Eufronia, daughter of Eufronius and a mother, killed in a shipwreck (sc. lies here). Born on 31 October, gave birth on 11 April, died 30 April.

Something similar appears to apply in a text from Chester (RIB I 544):

[- – – – – -] | opt[i]onis ad spem | ordinis | (centuria) Lucili | Ingenui qui | naufragio perit | s(itus) e(st).

[- – – – – -], of the Optio-soon-to-be-promoted, in the century of Lucilius Ingenuus, who had died in a shipwreck, lies here.

A rather more common scenario, however, should be that of a body missing – a fate that, for those left behind, results in the need to come up with a cenotaph.

One such example is reported in the tombstone of a boy named Ursinus, in a tombstone that was discovered at Baška Voda (in the Roman province of Dalmatia, now Croatia). The text, partly poetic in nature, tells of his father’s pains when uncertainty had become certainty after all (CIL III 1899 = CLE 826):

D(is) M(anibus) | M(arcus) Allius | Firminus | Ursino f(ilio) | C(ai) Septimi | Carpopo|ri delica|to infeli|cissimo p(uero) | naufragio | obito an(norum) XI | cuius mem|bra consum|sit maris | per | se quot nomen | titulus praestat | suisq(ue) dolorem.

To the spirits of the departed. Marcus Allius Firminus for his son Ursinus, delight of Gaius Septimius Carpoporus, a most unlucky boy, who died in a shipwreck at the age of eleven, whose body the sea has devoured. How many a time does an inscription display a name on it – and thus bring pain to the relatives.

Similarly, an funerary poem from Ravenna tells the following story (CIL XI 188 = CLE 1210):

Duo Iuvan(ensium?) Lupi et Apri. | una Iuvaniae domus | hos produxit alumnos. | libertatis opus contulit una dies | naufraga mors pariter rapuit | quos iunxerat ante | et duplices luctus | sic periniqua dedit.

[This is the monument of] two from Iuvanum (?), Lupus and Aper. One house in Iuvanum brought forth these two as its foster-children, a single day bestowed the gift of liberty upon them. [The fate of] death in shipwreck snatched away alike those whom it had united before, and thus, most unfairly, brought about double grief.

Another poeticising  variation on the same motive was discovered in Padua (CIL V 3014 = CLE 2209):

D(is) M(anibus). | P(ublio) Pom(peio?) | Firmo | infelic(issimo) | quem ma|ris apstulit | undis  Iul(ia) | Olympia ma|rito b(ene) m(erenti) p(osuit).

To the spirits of the departed. For Publius Pompeius (?) Firmus, the most wretched, who was snatched away by the waves of the sea: Iulia Olympia had this erected for her well-deserving husband.

Or in a prose text from Ancona (CIL IX 5920):

D(is) M(anibus). | M(arco) Gratio Co|ronario qui | in mare vi tem|pestatis deces(sit) | Scaefia Calliope | coniugi optimo | et Scaefiae Ter|tullae filiae d|ulcissimae quae | vixit annum d(ies) XIII | b(ene) m(erenti).

To the spirits of the departed. For Marcus Gratius Coronarius who died at sea due to the force of a storm: Scaefia Calliope had this erected for the best husband and for Scaefia Tertulla, her sweetest daughter, who lived one year and thirteen days: she was well deserving.

Occasionally, Latin funerary inscriptions do not spare grim and gruesome detail. One such text from Solin in Dalmatia (Croatia), for example, reminds us that even those who already were with one foot in the cold grave that is the deep, deep sea and then managed to escape this fate, are not necessarily safe from a horrendous death soon afterwards (CIL III 8910):

[n]aufragio exi|sse annum | vertentem |vixisse pos an|num mano uma|na sublatum | esse Aur(elius) Aeladi(us) | pater filio pi|entissimo | pos(uit).

Escaped from a shipwreck, lived over the course of a year, then killed by a human hand. Aurelius Aeladius, the father, had this erected for his most dutiful son.

All these texts are testimony to grim fates and deep grief of those left behind. Yet, they also are an expression of the desire to cope and to come to terms with a traumatic loss.

One must hope that this step will soon become possible for those who experience deep anguish over the fate of their beloved ones aboard the Malaysian Airlines flight.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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