Graves, the new destination

Should we go sightseeing at the Titanic? Godfrey Hodgson asks when we may break an ancient taboo

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Robbing graves is bad luck, and so is disturbing the dead. That is why the Irish never build on the prehistoric tombs they call fairy castles. That is why peoples all over the world, from Australian aborigines to native Americans, resent the way Western explorers have carried off grave goods and even mummified bodies, skulls and skeletons. That is why Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and the other explorers suffered the curse of King Tut.

Ancient, near-universal human taboos are involved. So it is natural to feel a certain glee on hearing that the hoist cable that snapped yesterday may frustrate George Tulloch's attempt to make money out of taking paying trippers to watch a small piece of the Titanic lifted from the seabed two miles deep off Newfoundland.

The wonder ship, the biggest ever built at the time, was supposed to be unsinkable. But it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912 with 2,200 passengers and crew - "souls", as they used to be called - on board. Just because the ship was supposed to be unsinkable, there were only lifeboats for half of the passengers: 1,500 people drowned. "It was", as the ballad says, "sad when the great ship went down."

Tulloch, who made his money selling BMWs to wealthy suburbanites in Connecticut, has all the tact and discretion of a fairground barker. He is proposing to sell off chunks of coal from the wreck the size of golfballs, preserved in lucite, for $25 a chunk.

The Discovery cable TV channel is reported to be paying Tulloch's company $3m for film and TV rights. He's got Bass to chip in, because he hopes to salvage 12,000 bottles of Bass Ale. Occasionally his company has hinted that he might be able to salvage more valuable assets: diamonds, a jewelled copy of the Omar Khayyam and a vintage Renault car.

He is selling trips to visit the wreck for anything from $1,800 to $7,000 a time. Part of the come-on is that the punters would get to meet "the who's whos" of the world, though so far only an astronaut with a background in deep-sea diving and that grand old centrefold Burt Reynolds have signed on. Not to worry, says George Tulloch, passengers "will get a chance to meet me". Irrepressible is his middle name.

Unsurprisingly, Tulloch has drawn down on himself a storm of disapproval. "How do I feel about the expedition?" said Robert Ballard, the American oceanographer who actually found the wreck in 1985. "In a word, sad". Not everyone involved has been so monosyllabic.

Tulloch cares more about making money than preserving history, says Karen Kamuda, vice president of the Titanic Historical Society in Massachusetts. "Most who had relatives on board", said a spokesperson for the Society, "think this operation is gruesome and awful". That certainly seems to be true. "My father's body may still be on that vessel," said Milvina Dean, who was nine weeks old when the Titanic sank 84 years ago. "I think it's plundering," said another survivor, Eleanor Shuman.

It is fair to point out that while there are more than 1,500 bodies around the Titanic, the likelihood is that there will be few, if any, bodies left in it. Underwater cameras revealed macabre evidence from the engine room: a pair of empty stoker's boots. The remains of the stoker, it seems likely, have long been sucked into the silt. Eighty-four years is a long time, but not so long that there are no survivors. The question arises, how old do human remains have to be before we stop thinking of them as human? The answer is, I think, that we have mixed feelings. When we see human beings who were caught in the molten lava of Vesuvius at Pompeii or Herculaneum, one part of us is able to look at them comparatively unmoved, while another makes us identify with their death with a shudder.

A British traveller in late eighteenth century Turkey recorded in a letter his emotions on seeing the remains of the first impaled criminal he had seen. It was less shocking than he expected, he wrote, because it - or he? - was so old. Archaeologists cheerily call the body of a man preserved for millennia in a Cheshire peat bog "Pete Marsh": but when we read about the find, don't most of us feel at least a tiny frisson of shared humanity?

Grave robbing is as old as history. But in the past people robbed graves to take the treasures that were buried there. What is new, the innovation for which we have to thank George Tulloch, is the idea that there is money to be made out of showing people mass graves. It could become an industry. It is all too easy to imagine entrepreneurs organising trips to visit mass graves along the Japanese death railway in Malaya or right up to date in Srebrenica. Why not? It's a buck ... Compared to sex tourism, after all, it is positively respectable.

The Titanic affair does suggest one theoretical reflection. It is about contemporary political dogma, and in particular about the way the meaning of the word "conservatism" has changed. There is no contradiction, we are constantly told, between economic and cultural conservatism, between free market capitalism and that older, traditional conservatism that stresses the values of religion, morality and the family.

Yet taking trippers to inspect a mass grave is only one of a long string of activities, sanctioned by the supposedly liberating doctrines of the free market, that run clean counter to the teachings and instincts of traditional values. A small but telling example: conservative politicians exalt family values, while the fast-food industry is busy destroying the family meal.

The Titanic was loaded to the gunwhales with capitalists, real Astors and Guggenheims who could afford $4,350 a suite, in the money of 1912. Yet if the band didn't play "Nearer, my God, to thee", it did play an Episcopalian hymn called "Autumn" until the water was over the musicians' boots. The gentlemen did let the ladies and the children get into the boats first. And as the sailors pulled away from the sinking ship, they recited the Lord's Prayer.

In those days, capitalism, religion and tradition could co-exist. In the world of George Tulloch, all is fair in war and business and God is dead.

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