This is a strange topic of debate, but it’s one that’s currently playing out in the courts. For the past three decades, people have been sending submersible ROVs down to the wreck of the Titanic and recording amazing footage of the decaying ship’s hull. Some have been able to venture inside the hull to explore some of the interior spaces. These activities are generally considered to be expeditions of a scientific or historical nature, but there have also been artifacts removed from the wreck and brought back to the surface. The company with the current salvage rights is RMS Titanic Inc. and they are currently working on a plan to salvage the Marconi wireless telegraph machine from the ship’s radio room so that it can be displayed in a museum.

That isn’t sitting well with some people who view the wreck as a memorial to the dead. They argue that there may still be human remains inside the vessel that should not be disturbed. That could be true for the radio room. Thus far the courts are siding with the salvage crew, but those decisions are being appealed. (Associated Press)

Lawyers for the U.S. government have raised that question in an ongoing court battle to block the planned expedition. They cite archaeologists who say remains could still be there. And they say the company fails to consider the prospect in its dive plan.

“Fifteen hundred people died in that wreck,” said Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “You can’t possibly tell me that some human remains aren’t buried deep somewhere where there are no currents.”

The company, RMS Titanic Inc., wants to exhibit the ship’s Marconi wireless telegraph machine. It broadcast the sinking ocean liner’s distress calls and helped save about 700 people in lifeboats.

The federal government is getting involved because of a pact with Britain recognizing the wreck as a memorial site. That agreement states that the site should be preserved so that the hull, artifacts, and any human remains are not disturbed. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith disagreed. In her most recent ruling, she said that the recovery and preservation of the Marconi wireless set would “contribute to the legacy left by the indelible loss of the Titanic, those who survived, and those who gave their lives.”

A major part of this argument revolves around the question of whether or not there actually are any human remains left in the ship after all this time. The salvage company argues that they’ve made more than 200 dives and they’ve never seen any. They further state that remains tend to deteriorate under those conditions even if they don’t fall victim to predation. But other experts in the field argue the opposite, saying that very cold water with little oxygen in it preserves bones very well.

So who is in the right in this debate? We have developed a lot more cultural sensitivity toward the subject of human remains than we had only a century ago. When families lost a loved one, obviously they wanted to hold services to preserve and honor their memory. But when it came to ancient or more distant remains, all bets were off. Egyptian mummies were routinely ripped open for examination, sometimes at parties in England. Prehistoric fossils are on display all around the world. The same was frequently done with early Indigenous Americans.

But more recently, courts and archeologists have begun recognizing the rights of people to demand that the bones of their ancestors be honored, even if they didn’t live contemporaneously with them. This sets up the question of when human remains change from being “the dearly departed” to simply a part of the archeological record. Do they ever? Should we not have recovered the bones of “Lucy,” a human ancestor who walked the Earth more than three million years ago?

The wreck of the Titanic is old, but it’s not that old. The ship sank in 1912. There are still a couple of people alive today who had already been born when it happened. We also know the identities of the vast majority of the people who went down with the ship. If remains were somehow recovered for DNA testing, their families might be able to collect them for proper burial. Or is their unplanned burial at sea the better option?

I appreciate the desire to recover more of the history of the Titanic and I find the tale fascinating. But at the same time, disturbing the bones of the dead should always give us pause. Perhaps the radio can be reached and photographed thoroughly for the museum while we leave whatever is left down there intact to rest in peace.