Why is my great grandfather buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia?
Dubbed “The City of Sorrow”, the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago, had an enormous impact on Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although, this maritime city lies about 700 miles northwest of the Titanic sinking site, Halifax became the epicenter of the Titanic recovery efforts. After the Carpathia had rescued 700 passengers and sailed to New York, the White Star Line dispatched the first of four Canadian ships to search for bodies after the sinking.
Halifax was home to a fleet of cable ships that had a major role in establishing international communication equivalent at the time to the World Wide Web. They did so by laying and repairing undersea cables making the telegraph a reality.
The cable ships were mobilized after the Titanic tragedy because they were well equipped with wireless telegraph and large storage areas to hold the victims. Also, their crews were tough experienced seamen who were familiar with the unforgiving North Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, the brave men on the cable ships that set sail from Halifax with a cargo of ice, coffins, embalming fluid and canvas bags, would soon learn that the grim task of recovering Titanic victims would not be easy. This experience would quietly haunt some of the crewmembers for years.
The first cable ship to leave Halifax on April 17, 1912 was the Mackay-Bennett. The vessel arrived at the site 3 days later and searched for victims for the next 5 days in a sea littered with bodies. The crew recovered 306 bodies, 116 of which were buried at sea, for lack of embalming supplies or due to the small likelihood of possible identification. The Mackay-Bennett was relieved by the Minia, which left Halifax on April 22 and arrived at the Titanic site on April 25. After eight days of searching, the Minia only found 17 bodies, two of which were buried at sea. One of the recovered victims was # 312, Gerios Youssef Abi-Saab, my great grandfather.
As the cable ships carrying the Titanic victims were somberly unloaded at the Flagship Wharf on the Halifax waterfront, church bells tolled and horse-drawn hearses owned by Snow Co. carried the coffins to the morgue. The city, with much of its center draped in black bunting, went into mourning.
The four ships sent from Halifax to pluck the victims out of the frigid waters recovered a total of 328 bodies, of which 119 were buried at sea. The bodies of 59 of the victims were reclaimed by their families. The remaining 150 were buried in three cemeteries in the city: more than 121 are buried in the non-denominational cemetery of Fairview, 19 in the Roman Catholic cemetery of Mount Olivet including Gerios Youssef Abi-Saab, my great grandfather and 10 in the Baron de Hirsch Jewish cemetery. 42 victims remain unidentified.
The people who perished on the Titanic had hopes, dreams, and struggles. Each had an important story to tell. Each had a brother, sister, parents and children who loved them.
Acting as a coroner, undertaker and mourner, Halifax played a crucial role in the Titanic story, one that is little known. The people of Halifax, commonly known as Haligonians, were responsible for the recovery, identification and burial of the Titanic victims, including my great grandfather. They did so with great care and utter respect.
For that, I will be eternally grateful.