Robert Fisk: In the Titanic cemetery, a day to remember

I look at their graves again: what was their world like, when my Dad was 13 years old?

I didn't intend to write about the Titanic again, although it hit the iceberg on my father's 13th birthday and has been a fascination of mine since I discovered that many of the dead came from a village called Kfar Mishki in Lebanon. The village inhabitants still mourn their long-dead ancestors who fled what was then Syria because of a famine that was laying waste to the land. Many of the Titanic dead in Halifax have no name. Others do.

Take Ernest Waldron King of Currin Rectory, Clones, in Ireland. "Died on duty, SS Titanic," it says on his headstone. "April 15, 1912, aged 28 years. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling." And then I glance at the lowest writing on the stone. "Erected by Mr J Bruce Ismay to commemorate a long and faithful service."

And who can forget that this very same Mr Ismay was the manager of the White Star Line, who famously said in James Cameron's epic: "This ship can't sink - it's unsinkable." And indeed this is the same Bruce Ismay who climbed into one of the last lifeboats in the early hours of 15 April and made his getaway as hundreds of his fellow passengers on the maiden voyage died in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. How did he dare to erect such a headstone? I looked at my host in Halifax, a local Canadian librarian with a vast smile on his face. "Thanks, Bruce," he said. I couldn't have put it better myself.

How is it, though, that these graves move us so much? Many millions of other innocents have died infinitely more terrible deaths - they say that freezing to death isn't as bad as being torn to pieces by a shell, though I shall wait for confirmation of this - in two horrific world wars and in my own neck of the woods, the Middle East. And yet I walk around the 61 graves in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery - and yes, there is a rail yard beside it, as there seems to be beside every cemetery - and wonder at these poor people's fates. So do others.

There is one headstone upon which is written the following words: "Erected to the memory of an unknown child whose remains were recovered after the disaster to the Titanic, April 15, 1912." (The Titanic was struck by the iceberg - which had been floating in the Atlantic before the ship was built in Belfast - late on the 14th and foundered on the 15th). And piled beside this solitary stone are two teddy bears, a child's tool kit, a wreath, a toy duck and two rings. What moved these unknown mourners, well over 90 years after this unknown child's death, to place these things beside its grave? Why am I so moved to see them here in this distant Canadian cemetery, with the wind off the sea and the long grass moving in the summer heat?

We are very selective in our mourning. I have seen Christians weeping as they listen to the story of the Crucifixion. I have seen Muslims in tears as they contemplate the tragedy of Hussein and Ali. And I cannot forget I, like many other children, queued at the Tower of London to see the stone chamber in which the two princes were smothered to death on the orders of Richard III. So why no tears every day for the millions of Russians, Poles, Jews and others murdered, done to death, gassed and cremated in the Second World War?

So I prowl around this windswept cemetery so far from British shores. "In loving memory of our dear son Harold Reynolds, April 15, 1912, aged 21 years. Out in that bitter waste/ Alone with thee, Thou didst each hero saint / From sorrow free. / No human help around thy sea/ Nearer to thee, / See angel faces beckon me, / Nearer to thee."

Both in Cameron's Titanic and in the 1958 film based on Walter Lord's A Night to Remember (and who now remembers there was a Broadway production in musical form?) the band played "Nearer, My God to Thee". However, it seems that this story was born when the rescue ship Carpathia (later sunk in the First World War off Ireland) reached New York and the hymn was never actually performed. Titanicologists - for they exist, believe me - suspect that the band, all of whose members drowned, played "Alexander's Ragtime Band", the Merry Widow or "Songe d'Automne". Most cynical of all was Cameron's decision to have his Titanic band play "Nearer, My God to Thee" to the American music - which would never have been done on any British ship.

And yet those headstones carry a clarity all of their own. "Alma Paulson, aged 29, lost with her four children, Torburg Danna, aged eight, Paul Folke, aged six, Steina Viola, aged four, Costa Leonard, aged two." Is it because these people represented the end of the age of innocence? Is it because we all know that in just over two years the first of the 20th century's titanic wars would begin after the Archduke Ferdinand left the town hall in Sarajevo? I have a photograph of the said Archduke and his wife leaving the building just five minutes before their death. It is a postcard that I bought in Paris 13 years ago written by a young man to a relative on the Marne in France on 5 July 1914 and it hangs beside my front door in Beirut to remind visitors (and myself) how dangerous life can be outside the front door.

And I look at these graves yet again. What was their world like, when my Dad was 13 years old and had not yet been sent to the Somme? "Everett Edward Elliott of the heroic crew, aged 24 years. Each man stood at his post/ While all the weaker ones/ Went by, and showed once/ More to all the world/ How Englishmen should die."

And here is Herbert Cave, aged 39. "There let my way appear / Steps unto heaven / All thou sends't to me / In mercy given / Angels to Beckon me / Nearer My God to thee / Nearer to thee."

Have we lost something over the years since 1912?