This article analyzes the process of body recovery that took place after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Focusing on how identification was intertwined with valuation, I show how notions of economic class informed decisions about which human bodies were fit for preservation as human bodies. The RMS Titanic steamship was a microcosm of social circulation in the early 20th-century Atlantic, and life on board was systematically stratified according to economic class. During the recovery that following the sinking, 114 bodies, or one-third of the total recovered, were buried at sea, most of them crewmembers or immigrant passengers who had held third-class tickets. Sea burial exposed the bodies to rapid and inaccessible decomposition, thereby selectively excluding those bodies from the archival and forensic record even as those victims’ names and personal artefacts were recorded for posterity. The recovery process thus demonstrates that the material existence of those passengers’ remains was not a given, but instead emerged in varied ways through identification and recovery practices. Such practices drew on notions of economic value and identifiability to shape bodily materials, which were selectively preserved, transformed, and/ or put out of reach. As such, I argue that identification and valuation are thoroughly enmeshed with what I call instantiation, or determinations of how and whether something exists.

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Keywords bodies, disaster, forensics, identification, materiality, shipping, valuation
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Bier, J.L. (2018). Bodily circulation and the measure of a life: Forensic identification and valuation after the Titanic disaster. doi:10.1177/0306312718801173