Urmas Viilma: Sanctity of MS Estonia grave site needs to be unconditional

Archbishop Urmas Viilma.
Archbishop Urmas Viilma. Source: ERR

The private expedition headed by Margus Kurm is planning work and activities in and around the wreck of MS Estonia that could violate the sanctity of the grave site, Archbishop Urmas Viilma writes.

An exhibition at the Maritime Museum's Seaplane Harbor from a few years ago titled "Titanic: Story, Finds, Legends" displayed 150 artifacts recovered from the wreck, including passengers' personal effects.

Expeditions to sunken wrecks are hugely expensive, which is why one needs a thorough business plan to cover costs and turn a profit. There is no doubt that the aim of the Titanic exhibition that has been touring the world's museums for years is to make money for the owners and mediators.

I was left with mixed feelings after seeing the exhibition. I concluded that I would probably not be prepared to visit a similar display of items from the wreck of MS Estonia. Firstly, because the temporal distance between the sinking of the Titanic and the MS Estonia disaster is vast.

The former was swallowed by the waves more than a century ago, while I and many others remember the sinking of the latter. People who escaped the ferry live among us, as do the next of kin and close friends of those who did not. The memory is still too fresh.

I was left feeling quite different after visiting the current Seaplane Harbor exhibition of the tragedy of the Juminda Naval Battle. That exhibition is appropriate and dignified in its time and place.

The two-piece wreck of the Titanic was found 73 years after it sank, on September 1, 1985 by an American-French joint expedition. One of the heads of said expedition, Robert Ballard, said upon his return that the team did not bring a single item to the surface because they considered it grave robbing.

By now, several expeditions have brought up over 6,000 items from the Titanic and the nearby seafloor some of which have been donated to museums, while others have made their way to private collections via auctions.

The location of the Titanic's sinking is not protected by a sanctity of the grave site agreement. And yet, the organizer of the first Titanic expedition considered it grave robbing to take a single item. Several expeditions to the wreck of MS Estonia have been organized. All have been explained through the need to determine the true cause of MS Estonia's sinking and establish the truth as past investigation results have not been satisfactory.

The recent expedition by the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau and corresponding authorities in Sweden and Finland also serves the purpose of determining new circumstances pertaining to the shipwreck.

Unfortunately, several private expeditions have later become commercial enterprises as video footage and other information has been packaged in a way to help sell the material to cover costs and turn a profit. Several media houses and streaming platforms based purely on commercial grounds have already shared or stand to share in that revenue.

Another such expedition is set to begin in the near future of which the public recently learned. An investigation team led by [former prosecutor and head of the initial MS Estonia investigation] Margus Kurm and financed by private interests is planning work and activities in and around the MS Estonia wreck that could violate the sanctity of the grave site. The team is looking to enter the wreck, remove soil and bring to the surface items. We do not know what kind of items.

The expedition is also looking to film all of its activities, with divers to accompany underwater robots if necessary. Time will tell whether the expedition will only seek the truth of MS Estonia's sinking for the victims' next of kin and the public or whether commercial interests aimed at turning a profit will also be pursued in the future.

Organizing such an expedition seems morally dubious if only in trying to bypass the sanctity of the grave site agreement in place between several countries. Were the organizers' intentions sincere, they would not be looking for loopholes or referring to the wreck as derelict property.

The sanctity of the grave site needs to be honored and observed irrespective of which countries have joined the agreement or whether anyone has claimed the wreck of MS Estonia.

The fact remains that it is the common grave and resting place of hundreds of people. Honoring the sanctity of graves is a moral matter in addition to a legal one, part of which is not removing items from the site. This especially concerns the personal effects of victims. Footage to be filmed inside the wreck of MS Estonia could prove sensitive for the same reason.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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