Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Memorial Service

Transocean, the company that operated the oil rig that exploded last month in the Gulf of Mexico, sponsored a memorial service today in Jackson, Mississippi for the 11 employees who are missing and presumed dead in that accident.  Many of the 115 surviving workers from the rig, whose collapse triggered the massive oil spill still going on in the Gulf, were expected to travel from throughout the south to attend the service. 

I will admit to greeting this news with some cynicism.  My first thought was that today -- five weeks after the accident -- was a little late to be holding a memorial service.  The second was that, having allegedly tried to muscle its workers into signing waivers the day of the accident, the company had a lot of nerve inviting them to this service and saying they were a "community."

Let's take that second thought first.  I still am skeptical that the executives at Transocean are very concerned with the wellbeing of this community of theres.  Their past actions, at least as alleged in court documents, don't seem to support that.  However, the fact that they allegedly did something really awful does not actually preclude the possibility that they're doing something good.  Whatever their motivation -- be it altruism or pure PR -- bringing the workers back together and holding a memorial service is a good thing to do, and the executives at Transocean get some credit for it.

This brings us to the timing of the service.  As memorial services go, this is pretty late.  Depending on your religious tradition, services to honor the dead are usually held within a week or two of the death, and in some traditions with 24 or 48 hours.  Funerals and memorial services give a sense of "closure" to survivors, which is not to say that they are somehow then "over" the death, but rather that the death itself as an event is over and the healing can, perhaps, begin.  For the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon, there has been no formal event to mark the end of the event.  When they finished with the lawyers on the day of the explosion, they went to be with their families, some were still in the hospital, and they scattered to their home towns.  At that point, the search was still on for the 11 missing men.

By the time the search was called off, the hospitalized were out of the hospital and the dust had settled somewhat, the two week window for a service had passed.  At that point, the easiest thing to do would have been nothing.  Each of the 11 families undoubtedly held services according to their own traditions and beliefs in their own communities, and Transocean was not really obligated to do much other than possibly send a representative to those services. 

Having a memorial service sponsored by the company, however, allows the survivors to come back together, to see each other, to be with others who understand what they went through, and to reach some kind of closure.  It recognizes that the dead workers hailed not just from communities defined by their residences, but from a community of workers who were on the rig that day and most of whom were employed by Transocean. 

It has been said that funerals are more for the living than for the dead.  That is certainly my personal belief.  In this instance, a delayed but well-planned memorial service offered comfort not just to the bereaved, but to the survivors.  That is how it should be, and why Transocean chose to do the right thing is entirely beside the point.


Edwin Aoki said...

I heard a story just a few moments ago on NPR about this, and the first line made me think of this blog: (roughly) "With all of the attention focused on the oil spill, it's easy to overlook another set of victims of the Deepwater Horizon explosion."

We may talk about the timing of the memorial, of the company's motivations, of the possible safety issues that led to the disaster in the first place. But I think it's important, especially at a time when people are looking inwards to their own (valid) concerns - wondering whether their livelihoods are at state, wondering whether the environment will recover, wondering how much it will all cost - to remember that there are families and friends that have no such doubts. The loss of their neighbors and fathers and husbands is very real and very immediate. And while a memorial service can't bring them back, it can help us remember that amongst the tremendous tragedy that this spill has wrought that there are many, smaller and more personal tragedies as well, and that as a community we need to honor and assist our neighbors as best we can.

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