Here’s Webster’s: “having or conferring distinction; commemorative; conferred or elected in recognition of achievement or service without the usual prerequisites or obligations; unpaid, voluntary; dependent on honor for fulfillment.”
Obviously an “honorary” death isn’t what he meant.
To have an honorary death on the Titanic would, by most definitions, mean to die on the Titanic without having been a passenger or crew member (or orchestra member) on her, since all of those deaths came as a result of the usual prerequisite for dying on a sinking ship: i.e., having been on the ship in the first place. And while some of the lost actually did make a choice based on honor, many went down simply by chance, or as a consequence of somebody else’s dishonorable act.
Some people—the ship’s orchestra, most of the crew, John Jacob Astor IV and many of his ilk, and so on—did find it honorable to remain on the ship; we might even stretch the first definition and say that dying conferred honor on them. But my student doesn’t seem to be writing about those who did die on the Titanic; he’s talking about an unspecified hypothetical group.
He’s talking about “some” of us, some people now living. At least I believe that’s what he’s talking about. We might think of all those people who died that night (a hundred years ago last night) as honorable.
To die an honorary death on the Titanic, for those “some” people, would mean to be given a certificate, or a plaque, or a medal, and be told “I declare you an honorary victim of the sinking of the Titanic.” Or, maybe more accurately, to have the doctor proclaim, as he draws the sheet over one’s face, “Because you have faced death boldly, I now declare you to have died on the Titanic.”
There’s no way the choice of word really works, although for some reason I think most readers do know what he meant.
As an aside: At least he wrote “the Titanic,” not merely “Titanic.” Does anyone besides me cringe when people refer to “the sinking of Titanic“? Where did the article go, lately? Listen to any sailor all the way back into time and you’ll hear “Hoist up the John B.‘s sails” “Let the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.” “On the good ship Lollipop.” “The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.” “We came over on the Mayflower.” I certainly would never claim that I had a berth on Queen Elizabeth II“—I don’t think she’d let me climb on board of her! Why the change?
Maybe the nautical “the” ran away with the dance “the.” I went to the Prom, and so did my sisters, and my mother, and my cousin Charley, and any number of other 18-year-olds over time, twirling on the enchanted dance floor and into their adult lives. Now, though, kids go “to Prom,” sounding as if it’s a place rather than an event: last June I went to Paris, and this year I’m going to Prom.
Back from the aside: Let’s have some good writing, for a change. I want to offer everyone a reading of Thomas Hardy’s great poem in memory of those who died on the Titanic a century ago, a world ago. Let honor fall where it may.
The Convergence of the Twain
By Thomas Hardy
(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)IIn a solitude of the seaDeep from human vanity,And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.IISteel chambers, late the pyresOf her salamandrine fires,Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.IIIOver the mirrors meantTo glass the opulentThe sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.IVJewels in joy designedTo ravish the sensuous mindLie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.VDim moon-eyed fishes nearGaze at the gilded gearAnd query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …VIWell: while was fashioningThis creature of cleaving wing,The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everythingVIIPrepared a sinister mateFor her — so gaily great —A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.VIIIAnd as the smart ship grewIn stature, grace, and hue,In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.IXAlien they seemed to be;No mortal eye could seeThe intimate welding of their later history,XOr sign that they were bentBy paths coincidentOn being anon twin halves of one august event,XITill the Spinner of the YearsSaid “Now!” And each one hears,And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.