People who lived their entire lives at sea prefer to be buried at sea. Since ancient times, ship captains, naval officials, sailors, and even pirates have made it known that their greatest wish for the hereafter is that their remains be scattered on the open seas, where they lived their most adventurous years.
Of course, there are unfortunate situations when a sea burial is required, like terrible boating or swimming incidents where the victims drown and are never found. The fulfillment of a long-held wish by the departed person, or even the fulfillment of a legacy, makes burial on the water the most notable of circumstances.
Water burial is a dignified and firmly established way to pay tribute to our maritime heroes.
With the introduction of cremation, water burial has evolved in the modern world. While it is unquestionably true that full-body, traditional water burials are still somewhat common, it is also true that many water graves nowadays feature the remains of individuals who spent very little time at sea.
What is water burial?
Water burial was first practiced in the early years of memorial traditions, and it typically involved wrapping a body in a dignified shroud and lowering it into the sea in a far-off location with deep water, where there’s less chance of the partially-decomposed remains ever washing up on shore.
The body is set in the water while immersed in a specially constructed metal casket or shroud. To quickly degrade over time, shrouds are made of natural fibers, and the shrouds and caskets will need to be weighted down for the body to sink to the ocean below.
Water burial is done by scattering cremated remains over water. The usage of biodegradable urns for water burial is a more recent trend.
These urns are placed in the water with the ashes inside, where they will eventually decompose. The urns are entirely made of biodegradable materials, so they don’t leave any toxic byproducts behind when they break down.
Early burials at sea
It is believed that people have been buried at sea throughout history. Examples of this practice may be found in the traditional burial rites of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The ritual is widespread; in the South Pacific, bodies would be wrapped in a scarlet cloth before being paddled to sea. On the other hand, people in the Solomon Islands occasionally disposed of their dead on the reefs that surrounded the islands so that sharks would eat them.
Vikings water burials
When the Vikings invaded the British Isles in 700 A.D., they brought the custom of ship burials with them. However, these interments frequently took place on land, with the ship either being burnt or buried behind a burial mound. The Norse Sagas mention scattering ashes over the water, and although there is no physical proof of this technique, legends claim that Viking ships were lit on fire and propelled out to sea, where the flames and waves devoured them.
The British Water Burial
British mariners, notably the British Navy, frequently required burial at sea. The British established their own ritualized sea burials relatively early on, while the French and Spanish usually chose to leave the bodies of their companions in the ship’s hold until they could locate a terrestrial graveyard.
This often involves the ship’s sail maker or one of his men sewing the body into a shroud, with one well-known custom stating that the final stitch should go through the corpse’s nose.
A deceased sailor’s hammock was often used as a shroud in the 19th century. In both cases, a lead shot would be used to weigh the body down so it would sink properly and not wash ashore. The body would have a religious ceremony officiated by the ship’s captain before being dumped into the water.
Sea burials in the United States
According to Environmental Protection Agency rules, complete body burials at sea in the U.S. must occur at least 600 feet below the surface and three nautical miles (5.6 km; 3.5 mi) from land (180 m). A complete body must be interred at least three miles inland in California.
The closest suitable depths are located off Long Island (75 miles/121 km), Miami (5 miles/8.0 km), and Ocracoke (20 miles/32 km). Finding a suitable spot for sea burial in the U.S. may involve more than 30 miles (48 km) of travel.
Many harbors on the west coast of the United States, including San Diego, Eureka, Monterey, Fort Bragg, Santa Barbara, and Crescent City (all in California), have sufficient depth within 10 miles (16 km) or fewer.
Water Burials in Australia
The Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping) Act of 1981, overseen by the federal Department of the Environment, prohibits burial at sea throughout the Australian territorial seas, the continental shelf, and the exclusive economic zone.
A permit is necessary if a body is to be buried at sea. Typically, permits are only issued to people who have a close connection to the water, such as long-serving members of the military. The only acceptable method of embalming or interring the body is to sew it into a weighted shroud.
The burial must occur in water at least 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) deep and must not obstruct fishing, shipping, or undersea communications. These standards do not apply to Australian Defense Force boats operating in armed conflicts or emergencies.
Popular Sea Burials
Captain Cook’s funeral was one notable burial from the 18th century. Cook was killed after going ashore in Hawaii during a dispute with locals over a stolen boat. The circumstances surrounding his death were very grim. However, the pieces of his body that his crew could salvage were placed in a coffin and given a grand marine funeral.
The most popular water burial in the U.S. will be that of assassinated terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Numerous articles on sea funerals have noted that there has not been a decline in the number of sea burials since Bin Laden was buried at sea.
This decision was made by U.S. military officers who wanted to ensure that a burial site for the slain terrorist wouldn’t become a destination for his followers.
The actor Robin Williams, director H.G. Wells, musician Stan Getz, singer Janis Joplin, countless Titanic victims, actor Vincent Price, and astronaut Neil Armstrong are among those who have been buried at sea.
Planning a water burial
There are several factors involved when planning a burial at sea. Try to assign as much of the planning process to your support network as possible. If you’re doing the planning without a funeral director, keep in mind that it’s acceptable to keep things straightforward during this difficult time.
Below are some things to consider if you choose to hold a burial at sea on a boat:
How many people are expected?
As the number of attendees grows, the cost of renting a boat for a water burial will also rise. The average cost for 1–6 people is around $500; $700 for 7-9 passengers; and so on. These boat cruises last between one and two hours.
Do you have the necessary paperwork?
No matter whether you’re releasing ashes or a full body, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates that you obtain permission before you dispose of human remains at sea. This permit must be submitted within thirty days of the burial.
The paperwork should be taken care of for you as part of their fee if you hire a company to plan a water funeral, but you should confirm that with them.
Where exactly will the dispersion take place?
If you plan to spread the ashes at a specific fishing location, you would need to know the precise coordinates of the final resting place of your loved one. And if you have a particular location, make sure it is at least three nautical miles from land. You won’t be able to scatter the remains if it’s not. The charter will often have the sea monitoring tool required to find the specific location.
Is there enough space for guests to park?
You should be aware of this in advance if shuttles or carpooling are required. If you’re using a private charter company, parking should be no problem, but it’s essential to check it out before the funeral. Alternatively, enquire with the charter operator about parking space available for guests.
Will anyone in your group need help to get to the boat or get on it?
The crew of your chartered boat is probably comfortable helping people get on and off the vessel. Still, if, for instance, a family member in a wheelchair wants to attend the burial at sea, you may need to make arrangements for additional help.
Is there anything more you need?
Many charter companies provide extras like flowers and champagne to toast your loved one, among other things. Using these products, if your budget allows, could simplify things on the day of the event.
Will there be any refreshments served?
People will undoubtedly become hungry and thirsty because the event will last at least an hour. Additionally, since sadness can affect appetite, it’s a good idea to be ready if a grieving person suddenly feels peckish.
Verify with the boat business to ensure they accept outside food and beverages, though most do. It will be easier on you on this challenging day if you delegate the responsibility of buying and cooking the food and providing the necessary utensils and dishes.
How does a water burial work?
Water funerals, just like any other funeral, are often customized to the deceased’s requirements. However, some commonalities apply to every burial at sea ,including the following.
Getting on the boat
At the scheduled time, mourners will arrive to board the boat. You should arrive on time because the price of the service is partially determined by how long the boat trip takes. Delays could result in additional expenses for the organizer or the boat leaving without you.
Reach your destination.
A hired firm will ensure they abide by local, state, and federal regulations regarding the disposal of human remains at sea. When disposing of a whole body, they will transport mourners at least three miles offshore, ensuring the sea is at least 600 feet deep.
The funeral service
A service can be organized by the deceased’s loved ones or family. This could take the form of eulogies, a prayer offered by the boat captain or a religious leader, or the exchange of heartfelt stories and memories of the departed.
The remnants will be thrown into the sea when the time is right. A body draped in a shroud or in a casket will be dropped first into the water during a full-body burial.
If the body has been cremated, the ashes can either be scattered loosely or put in biodegradable urns. It can also be distributed among family members for scattering.
The cost of water burial
Water burial costs can vary depending on the features you wish to include and how you intend to bury the deceased. It’s essential to compare prices from different businesses in your state to be sure you’re getting the best deal.
Keep in mind that there can be various permitting fees in other states, so it’s advisable to engage with funeral directors and businesses in the area where you intend to perform the burial to ensure a fair comparison. Here are the various levels of water burial.
Ash dumping without supervision at sea
There are several businesses that will scatter ashes on your behalf if you want to honor the wishes of your loved one by planning a water funeral but are unable to make arrangements to spread the ashes yourself. This might be a huge comfort for those who are too elderly or ill to go by boat.
It’s also a very cost-effective choice. Although it varies from place to place, the cost is usually between $100 and $500. Some businesses can even record a video of the dispersal to give to the mourner as a souvenir.
According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, the ashes must be scattered three miles offshore. You can also pay a business to spread the ashes for you offshore while mourners observe from the beach since it is legal to do so 500 yards offshore in states like California. The price range is often around $140 to $800.
Ashes scattering water funeral
You can arrange for the attended disposal of ashes at sea if you’d prefer to take part in the actual dispersal of your loved one’s ashes. You can either make all of the arrangements yourself or with the help of a funeral director. The ashes can be scattered or placed in a biodegradable urn for burial under water.
An offshore memorial service is comparable to an attended disposal at sea. You can make it as informal or as formal as you like. Friends and relatives may share brief stories and memories or formally honor their loved ones during the ceremony.
A brief speech or prayer from the ship’s captain or a religious leader can be included. These services cost between $250 and $1,000 for a small group of up to ten people. The price range for larger groups (10 to 35 people) might be between $1,500 and $3,200.
The number of extra amenities or services you decide to incorporate would determine the final cost.
Full body burial
Full-body burials require more effort than simply spreading ashes. You must be at least three miles offshore and in water that is at least 600 feet deep to submerge the body. The body must also be housed in a niche coffin or burial shroud.
Prices for full-body burials can start as low as $5,000 and go up to $10,000, depending on the length of the boat voyage and the number of visitors.
The cost of additional services like a memorial service, food, music, drinks, or flowers will go up, just like with an attended scattering.
What religions teach about burial at sea?
Most religions do not strongly object to being buried at sea. Although they prefer that people be buried on land, the majority of religions that openly address the issue in their various official books and teachings say that there is nothing inherently wrong with being buried at sea, either for the person being buried or for humanity as a whole.
The primary reason ground burial is recommended is for memorials. For those who desire to honor a friend or relative in elegance, having a permanent location where their loved ones can return for ceremonies each year or visit occasionally can be an emotional blessing.
Despite the validity of this argument, it is fortunate that the world’s major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam—agree that a monument, headstone, or even a plaque could be just as powerful in honoring a loved one as an entire grave site.
Laws Regarding Seaside Burials
There aren’t many limitations on how a burial at sea can be carried out as long as it’s done. Law-making authorities generally seek to ensure that sea burial won’t result in the body being washed ashore. Aside from this worry, however, there isn’t much that municipal, state, or the United States government are interested in regarding burials at sea.
Furthermore, because sea burial has been a tradition among seafarers for as long as humans have been sailing on the seas, it is unlikely that any laws passed by sailors will ever forbid it once a ship is more than 12 miles from land and is therefore considered to be in international waters, where complicated maritime law applies.
Frequently asked questions about burial at sea.
Is scattering ashes at a water burial legal?
Of course, it’s legal; otherwise, a company wouldn’t be providing this service. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) law and specific state boards, it is legal.
What legal documents are required to scatter human remains at sea?
A permit, especially a Disposition Permit/Burial Permit), is needed to scatter cremated remains at sea.
Current permission or a verified death certificate are both required to get the permit.
You can get this permit on your own. However, most families allow funeral directors and the charter firm to get it on their behalf.
Can I scatter cremated remains at a certain location?
Yes, you can disperse anywhere you like, provided that the region you choose does not pose a navigational concern to the vessel and that you are at least 500 miles from shore. Charters for burials at sea typically last for a couple of hours, but they can be extended for burials at sea farther out.
Is it appropriate to have clergy on a water burial yacht?
It is entirely up to the family to decide whether to include the clergy. Most families elect not to and instead host a more relaxed get-together.
If you do want clergy, perhaps you already have someone in mind. If not, the charter company or the funeral home can help you with finding one.
Is burial at sea considered a green burial?
Water burial, especially an ash scattering ceremony, can pass off as a green funeral since it has all the attributes of green burials, including eco-friendly materials.