An unsinkable memory

A century later, Titanic disaster resonates deeply in public consciousness

The Titanic has become such a cliché over the past 100 years that satirical news site TheOnion.com wrote a headline that reads “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg.”

Indeed, the famous ill-fated cruise ship, which hit an iceberg 100 years ago today and sank early the next day, has become synonymous with any large enterprise that sinks abruptly.

It’s also the name of one of the most famous movies ever made. In fact, some young folks have been caught admitting in social media that they were surprised this week to learn that the Titanic was real, and not just a movie.

However linguistically or poorly we’ve remembered, though, the important thing is that we’ve remembered. The people on that ship became immortal that night, whether they perished or not. We remember.

We remember because it was a truly horrific fate. We remember because it’s so personal and seemingly arbitrary; we can all relate to such a nightmarish scenario, and it truly could’ve happened to anyone. We remember because it was the biggest ship of its kind at that time, and reputed to be nearly unsinkable.

And we remember because it’s such a landmark cautionary tale: It’s so symbolic of mankind’s tendency toward hubris.

The victims are also remembered, obviously, by their families. More than 650 descendants of the victims gathered at Southampton, England, April 10, on the 100th anniversary of its launching there. Nearer My God To Thee, the song reportedly played by a band as the ship sunk, was played at the memorial.

“It was a worry during the anniversary that the families would be forgotten in all the razzmatazz,” one relative said.

Not to worry. We remember.

Others are remembered largely for their heroism. Augusta native Maj. Archibald Butt, an aide to two U.S. presidents, was said to have helped keep the ship’s evacuation calmer than it might otherwise have been. One news article said he was “tireless in helping women” escape. He went down with the ship, and today is memorialized with a bridge over the Augusta Canal.

The disaster also inspired the world to improve and better coordinate maritime safety rules – likely saving other lives.

While the ship’s name has, indeed, become a metaphor, and while it’s unnerving that some folks never knew it was a real event, James Cameron’s epic 1997 fictionalized movie Titanic, recently reissued in 3D, accomplished this much: It reminded us that the 1,514 dead and 710 survivors were real people who suffered greatly to give us a cliché.

We remember.

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