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A Watery Grave

Sometimes you’ll see an old photograph of a famous person with someone who can’t now be identified, even though their face is fully visible. It can be a strange feeling to look at a photograph like that. The unidentified person might be smiling at the camera, fully at ease, obviously someone with an active and interesting life. But they’re unaware that sixty or seventy or eighty years later they will have fallen out of history. Even their name has been forgotten. They’ve passed away and so has everyone who knew them.

But that happens to nearly all human beings. Most people aren’t famous during their lives and when they pass away only their family and friends still remember them. In time, the family and friends will pass away too. It’s like a stone being thrown into deep clear water. There’s a splash and you can see the stone falling through the water, getting less and less distinct, till  it’s lost from sight. And that’s the end: the stone has gone and the person has vanished.

It takes something unusual to change that, like a macabre discovery in an American lake in 2013. Foss Lake is in Oklahoma and three years ago police were testing sonar equipment in its deep waters. They got strong signals from two large objects in the muddy lake-bottom, which were identified as cars. Thinking that the cars had been stolen and dumped, the police pulled them out of the lake and discovered not only that each of them was a Chevrolet, but that each contained three skeletons.

It was a bizarre coincidence. What had happened to the cars? No-one can be sure, but the discovery seems to have solved two mysteries, one from the late 1950s, one from 1970. In both cases, a group of three friends suddenly vanished, leaving their family and friends without any clue where they’d gone. When only one person disappears, it’s always possible to assume that they’ve run away or been murdered or had an accident and lost their memory. When three people disappear, it’s much harder to explain.

Now two mysteries like have been solved: for sixty years, in one case, and forty, in the other, the missing friends had been hidden beneath the waters of Lake Foss. Presumably the cars they were in ran off the road into the lake and they were unable to escape from the car as it sank. The trio of friends who disappeared in the 1950s seem to have been elderly: one of them was sixty-nine. But the trio who disappeared in 1970 were much younger: a 16-year-old called Jimmy Williams and two 18-year-olds Thomas Rios and Leah Johnson. Life had just begun for them when it was snatched away.

But without the mystery of their disappearance and the chance discovery that solved it, would they have got into newspapers around the world? Probably not. They were ordinary youngsters who became part of an extraordinary story, so they have a small but permanent place in history. Many people who knew them are still alive, which is why the discovery of their bodies was so important. Now their family and friends could hold a proper funeral and lay them to rest in a proper grave. That’s the way it’s supposed to be and neither set of friends could have guessed that taking a drive by a lake would change that.

Life is always uncertain, which is why funerals are such important rituals. They are a way of confronting and controlling the randomness and cruelty of the world. When people disappear and are presumed dead, the grief of those who love them is increased by their inability to say goodbye in the proper way. The discoveries in Lake Foss finally brought that extra grief to an end for two sets of family and friends.