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Carmel Bradburn of Adelaide, South Australia waves as the Titanic Memorial Cruise leaves port in Southampton, England April 8, 2012. The cruise retraces the voyage of the ill-fated Titanic liner, which hit an iceberg and sank 100 years ago on April 15, 1912. (Chris Helgren/Reuters/Chris Helgren/Reuters)
Carmel Bradburn of Adelaide, South Australia waves as the Titanic Memorial Cruise leaves port in Southampton, England April 8, 2012. The cruise retraces the voyage of the ill-fated Titanic liner, which hit an iceberg and sank 100 years ago on April 15, 1912. (Chris Helgren/Reuters/Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Disaster's Centennial

Titanic disaster's 100th anniversary a chance to commemorate - and capitalize Add to ...

As the 100th anniversary next weekend of the Titanic’s sinking approaches, events across the world are being planned to commemorate the tragedy that took more than 1,500 lives.

Owing in part to the success of James Cameron’s romantic film of the same name, the Titanic’s legacy is a tremendous opportunity for organizers from both side of the Atlantic, hoping to strike the right balance between commemorating a tragedy and capitalizing on disaster tourism.

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The Titanic Memorial Cruise set sail from the British port of Southampton on Sunday to retrace the Titanic’s route on its maiden voyage. The cruise is a trip down memory lane with passengers invited to wear Edwardian period costumes, eat food from the original menus and listen to contemporary music.

“This cruise has been five years in the making and every step of the way we have sought to make it authentic to the era and a sympathetic memorial to the passengers and crew who lost their lives,” organizer Miles Morgan told Agence France-Presse.

Tickets started at £2,799 ($4,430 Canadian) and sold for as much as £5,995 pounds ($9,489).

While some find the memorial cruise ghoulish and macabre, Carmel Bradburn, 55, who lives in Australia, denied that retracing the Titanic’s doomed voyage is in poor taste.

“I don’t think the cruise is morbid. It’s like saying Gallipoli is morbid or commemorating the [Crimean]war,” she said. “Remembering those who died is not morbid.”

In Canada, the tone is noticeably more subdued – in all likelihood, because “we got the tragedy,” said Halifax historian Blair Beed. Halifax was used as a base for the “death ships” that recovered the bodies from the Titanic. “The start of the Titanic was very different and exciting. By the time we got involved, it was a very different story,” he said.

“One of the things that was preached by the city fathers … and even talked about in sermons in churches was, ‘Please do not make this into a three-ring circus’ you don’t need to go see the bodies coming off the ship,’ ” said Garry Shutlak, a senior archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives.

It’s the same sentiment today.

Nova Scotia’s ministry of tourism has pegged the events to be held next weekend as commemorative. It refuses to speculate on the expected number of visitors or the potential revenue that could be generated by the tourism. Still, the government will be plugging the province in a 3D trailer that precedes the newly released 3D version of James Cameron’s Titanic in Germany and Britain.

On April 14, the same day the ship struck an iceberg, bells will toll from the three churches – St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, St. Paul’s Anglican Church and St. George’s Round Church. These are the same churches whose bells first rang out when the first death ship returned to Canada on April 30, 1912. In Cape Race, Nfld., the closest landmass to the Titanic, emergency flares will be set off and a moment of silence held at 12:27 a.m. to mark the last time a distress call was received by the Marconi wireless system.

There’s little doubt that both Halifax and Cape Race hope to see a bump in “at least a few percentage points” in tourism, said Larry Daley, president of Titanic Expeditions in St. John’s.

He is planning a reenactment on the night of April 14 with a ship over the Titanic wreck site sending the same SOS messages over a closed circuit to a wireless operator in Cape Race. He’s also helping to organize a two-week tour that’s almost sold out – for $79,000 – that includes a dive to the Titanic’s wreck, a themed dinner and meandering cruise through Iceberg Alley off the coast of Newfoundland.

“I think the trick is making sure we’re telling people about the history of Newfoundland and Halifax to the Titanic story. It’s not just tourism,” Mr. Daley said. “There is a real connection to the Titanic, because we were there at the very end of its journey.”

Halifax tried to avoid the media frenzy

Church bells tolled in Halifax as the first “death ship” carrying the bodies of Titanic’s passengers sailed into the Halifax harbour on April 30, 1912.

That day portended the start of more than two months of mourning in Halifax as families came to claim the bodies of their loved ones. The remains of some 150 victims were buried in three Halifax cemeteries; many more were buried at sea.

In New York, reporters clamoured to get the morbid details, hounded the survivors and fed the public’s frenzy for the sensational details. Not wanting to duplicate the media hoopla in the United States, Halifax’s leaders made a conscious decision to restrict access to the bodies. As a result, few contemporary photographs exist from Halifax compared with the deluge of photographs and stories of the Titanic that were published in New York, said Blair Beed, a local historian. His grandfather was an undertaker who prepared the bodies of passengers and crew for burial.

“They wanted that privacy, that dignity, which is why they brought the bodies into the naval base,” Mr. Beed said. “And when they let the horse-drawn hearses in, they would check that there were no pesky people hanging off underneath trying to sneak in.”

No, not that J. Dawson

Of the some 120 people from the Titanic interred in Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery, one grave marked “J. Dawson” holds a special spot for fans of Rose and Jack’s epic romance in the 1997 film Titanic. In the movie version, Jack Dawson dies of hypothermia and Rose lets his body sink into the ocean. That hasn’t stopped fans from leaving flowers and, at one point, even ticket stubs at a grave site. The grave actually belongs to Joseph Dawson, an Irishman who worked in Titanic’s boiler room shovelling coal. “The real J. Dawson wasn’t that interesting,” says local historian Brian Beed. “In fact, he’s probably been more popular since the film released than he was in real life.”

With a report from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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