Published on hakaimagazine.com February 22nd, 2019.
As told to Stefan Slater
Captain Brad White is the founder of New England Burials at Sea, a Massachusetts-based company that provides full-body burials and ash scattering services at sea. The company operates out of 75 ports in the United States.
My family had been in the milk business in New England for over a century when my great-great-uncle said, “Since the Clydesdales aren’t pulling milk carts in the afternoon, let’s get them to pull hearses.” A new business was born. As a kid, I used to work in the funeral homes. My job was to set up and break down the flower stands and sweep the floors, then I graduated to driving hearses. As I got older, I realized the work was too sad for me. I’d had enough—I’m a happy guy.
I joined the corporate world, bought a nice boat, and got my captain’s license—I’ve been on the water since I was 12. But I still had an interest in the death care business. One day, a friend came to me and asked, “Hey, can you help me scatter my uncle’s ashes?”
One scattering became 20, became 200, which became a real business.
The death care industry has changed quite a bit over the years. People don’t want to be embalmed, they don’t want those poisonous toxins in their body. They don’t want to waste hundreds of thousands of feet of wood for caskets and millions of tonnes of steel for burial vaults. They want to be a part of the planet again—they want their body’s energy to go back into the ocean.
We have to be at least three nautical miles [5.6 kilometers] out to sea, except in California, where ashes can be spread 500 yards [457 meters] out. Bodies need to be buried in at least 600 feet [183 meters] of water. We use a burial shroud made from a heavy organic cotton duck fiber and weigh the bodies down with four cannonballs. The family might write messages on the cannonballs or messages in the shroud. We anchor the vessel and have a sea tribute, which includes maritime readings, music, and a flag raising. At the family’s cue, the remains go overboard. We fire off the ship’s cannon, circle to a couple of the deceased’s favorite songs, and then come in. We give the family a certificate showing the date, time, latitude, and longitude.
My best friend died from a brain tumor two years ago, and I took him out for a full-body burial at sea. I was talking to a guest as we searched for the right spot, when I looked over and saw a shark take a bird. I’d never seen that before. Then I saw a whale breach, and I knew this was the place. When we deployed his body overboard, about 80 Atlantic white-sided dolphins started coming out of the water—they had eyes as big as tennis balls, and they were looking at me like, “Don’t worry—we’ve got him now.”
It was such an epiphany—it gives the family great comfort knowing that their loved ones are traveling the ocean currents with wildlife.
I’ve always wanted to be a traditionalist and be in the ground, but when I saw those dolphins come out, that was a sign from above. I want to be cremated and scattered at sea with the whales off Cape Cod—those 60-foot [18-meter] humpback whales that come out of the ocean like a rocket.