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Funerals and Records
The first grim priority of the mortuary committee was to identify as many of the dead as possible. It was a difficult task. Some were burned or maimed beyond recognition. Other victims' entire families had been killed: there was no one to claim them, and many people didn't carry the various forms of identification that we do today, like drivers’ licenses.
The funerals, public and private, went on for weeks. Services for the unidentified drew thousands of mourners.
As the bodies were catalogued carefully, so were the personal effects found on or near them. Most were everyday personal items: wallets, jewelry, grocery lists, schoolbooks, and keys that might help to identify their owners.
Officials waited as long as they could for families to claim those remains called “the unidentified dead,” yet over 200 bodies were never identified.
The first funerals for the unidentified dead were held on December 17. Ninety-five coffins were lined up outside the Chebucto Road mortuary for separate Protestant and Catholic services.
In her book, Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery Janet Kitz reports that about 3000 people turned out:
By early February, 150 unidentified bodies had been buried at Fairview and Mount Olivet cemeteries; others were still to be found.
In 1917, identification of the dead was a simple process. A friend or family member had to recognize the body and identify it. There were no DNA testsDNA wouldnt be discovered for decadesand most people didnt have the extensive medical and dental files we do today. There were no Social Insurance cards, drivers licenses, photo IDs or credit cards in their wallets.
Every day at the Chebucto Road mortuary, relief workers sent lists to the newspapers: updated lists of the identified dead, and descriptions of the unidentified. Thousands of people came to walk the long aisles of bodies; each was escorted by a soldier or civilian volunteer.
Many bodies were badly burned and mutilated. Even for family members, identification was often difficult, in more ways than one.
James Pattisons brother Gordon was called later to identify their
father. The call came in the spring, when remains were still being removed
from the rubble of the Acadia Sugar Refinery where Mr. Pattison had worked.
The experience affected him for the rest of his life.
Did You Know
The King's sympathy: In London, King George V sent a personal cheque for $5000. He had visited Nova Scotia as Prince George when his father, Edward VII, was on the throne.
In a telegram to the Nova Scotia premier he said, "Please convey to the people of Halifax where I have had so many happy times my true sympathy in this grievous calamity."