Famous Sea Burials
Probably the most famous sea burial in the history of the United States is a notorious one: that of slain terrorist Osama Bin Laden. It may be surprising to note that many articles about sea burials have noted that Bin Laden’s burial at sea – administered by United States Military personnel who wanted to be sure that a land burial site for the terrorist would not become a pilgrimage spot for future decades of followers – has not led to a decrease in the number of people who have been buried at sea. Other sea burials of note have been actor Robin Williams, film maker H.G. Wells, numerous victims of the sinking of the Titanic, Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, singer Janis Joplin, musician Stan Getz, actor Vincent Price, Astronaut Neil Armstrong, and Atholl McGregor, an internationally known justice from Hong Kong.
So, as we say, burials at sea have been a tradition for centuries, and they continue to be a popular form of disposal for a deceased person’s body. In this day in which many people automatically assume that a person who has died will either be buried or cremated, it is important to remember that there is another option, laden with patriotic tradition, in fact. It may seem, at first glance to be a tradition best suited for those few who have spent their lives on the water – and it is certainly well suited for that – but the land-lubbers of the world can rest assured that the sea has plenty of space for them too.
Laws Regarding Burials at Sea
So long as burials are done well off of a coast, there are very few restrictions on how a burial at sea can be conducted. Generally speaking, law-making bodies want to assure that sea burial will not result in a body being washed ashore, and, other than concern, there is little to interest a local, state, or national government in sea burials. And, to top it off, once a cremation vessel is more than 12 miles away from land, it is considered to be in international waters where complex maritime law takes precedent and, sea burial having been a seagoing tradition for as long as man has been afloat on the seas, there is little chance that law made by sailors will ever prohibit the practice. There has certainly been no move toward that to date.
So make matters even more favorable for sea burial, there are very few laws that prohibit the scattering of cremation ashes over an inshore body of water. (Entire bodies are another matter in this case, of course.) Many people have been known to transfer the remains of their loved one’s cremation into a special, biodegradable, floating urn designed to float peacefully on the water’s surface for 10 to 15 minutes before gradually sinking to the bottom of a body of water where it breaks down relatively quickly allowing the remains to scatter to the four corners of the Earth. This is entirely legal in just about any body of water, provided the participants break no laws in their ceremony at the surface of the water (such as in trespassing over private property, for example).
Burials at sea are a tradition steeped in history. But it is also a tradition open to more than just sailors and those who have spent their lives on the water. Burial at sea is available to people of all walks of life , and it is done in a wide variety of ways. In some cases, the sea burial is done using cremation ashes and a specially made biodegradable urn; in others a weight is attached to the foot of a shrouded body which is then ceremonially dropped overboard from a ship; and still in others, a body is placed in a very heavy casket and lowered into the water from a boat. And, while famous celebrities such as Robin Williams and Dick Clark have indeed been buried at sea, the tradition is open to anyone. A special attraction to sea burial for many people is that a funeral director need not necessarily be involved and, in fact, so long as a certified ship captain is aboard, the burial need not meet any special requirements. In cases in which cremation ashes are scattered over a body of water, even the requirement of a captain is not necessary in most jurisdictions. The scattering can be based on a shoreline, even, making use of a boat unnecessary. We have assembled a brief list of topics that will be of interested in burial at sea.