Creative Writing: Sending the Message Home

Ask students to speculate: how would people back home know that a loved one had died at sea? Letters from across the sea were sent to family and friends on a fairly regular basis and newspaper reports often detailed losses at sea. Read the primary sources and encourage students to either write a letter telling someone that their family member has died or a newspaper obituary that details the life of a sailor of their choice. You can find a full list of sailors by searching for “Sailor Stories” in the search feature of the Educator Resources.

Navy or Knot: A Stitch Through the Nose

When a body was committed to the deep, it was stitched into a hammock. The last stitch went through the nose. While this sounds like a myth, it was actually quite practical (acting as a final check for life) but also superstitious (it sealed the deceased’s soul into the shroud so it would not follow the ship). Have your students explore a list of superstitions, then on their own create 3 "fake" and 1 real “practical” advantage of the superstition. Students present their advantages to the class and challenge each other to guess the real practical reason! For older students, explore committing "sailors to the deep" with some Shakespeare in this lesson.

Burial at Sea

Deaths were not unusual on warships, but a funeral always stopped the busy routine of Constitution. Before it began, a ship-mate sewed the dead man into his hammock, with a cannonball at his feet. The last stitch went through his nose, as a final test for life. Then, to a shout of "all hands bury the dead, ahoy!" the crew gathered round. After the chaplain read the funeral service the dead man's messmates tipped him into a watery grave.

You be the judge! Primary Sources

Sailors' families depended on support sent home by their husbands or fathers. If a sailor died, his shipmates might have taken a collection of money to send home to the sailor's family. Stories of these families survive now in primary sources, like pension applications. Read the excerpt from this pension record and decide as a class – should this person receive a pension or not?