Several months ago, while working on another project, I came across a letter regarding the remains of Fireman First Class Robert Orville Carver, USN, killed in a torpedo attack on the U.S.S. Mt. Vernon during WWI. It reads:
The cause of his death being a violent explosion, you can realize that the condition of his remains is not such as would be in the case he had died a natural death, and we advise you strongly not to disturb the casket in order to view them (letter dated 26 September, 1918 [2014-037-w-r]).
Who first decided that warnings of this sort were necessary? How many families had been traumatized prior to this because they had not been warned beforehand as to the condition of their loved one’s remains? I was surprised to discover that communication of this sort existed.
My experience with war has been similar to that of the rest of my generation, that is, seen from a distance, scrubbed and sanitized by the media or from the plush, air-conditioned cocoon of the local movie theater. What is presented to us are the heroic, the tragic, the violent, and the noble aspects of death in war and the dignified ceremonies honoring the fallen; what rarely, if ever, is revealed are the happenings in between and after. The logistical minutiae involved in making notifications, transporting remains, burying remains, disbursing insurance payments may not be the makings of cinematic gold, but they are an interesting and integral part of the story of every fallen soldier and their family.
My goal in creating this exhibit was to help tell the rest of the story. “The Business of Dying” follows the paper trail from the discovery of death to well after the funeral, revealing the mundane, bureaucratic, at times harsh, and yet all too important communication involved in bringing our heroes home.
“The Business of Dying” is on display at The Center for American War Letters Archives, Leatherby Librarie, Lower Level
Exhibit Dates: August 29 thru December 21, 2016.
For Library Hours, please visit http://www1.chapman.edu/library/info/hours.html
Andrea Paquin is a Special Collections Assistant working on projects at the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives and the Center for American War Letters Archives at Chapman’s Leatherby Libraries. Andrea is also a senior at Chapman University majoring in Non-Fiction Writing and Historical Inquiry. Andrea will be graduating in the fall of 2016.