What’s old is new again: Burial at Sea
by Joseph Santangelo
©2011 Cape & Plymouth Business Monthly.
It’s as old as seafaring itself. For thousands of years, a burial at sea was the customary way of laying to rest a person who had died while aboard ship. Now the ancient custom is staging a comeback, with some new twists.
Increasing numbers of people are opting to pay their last respects to a loved one with a ceremonial burial at sea. It is seen as an environmentally conscious way of leaving this life. No casket. No burial plot. No consuming scarce land in a cemetery.
The dear departed is typically cremated and the cremated remains are scattered over the ocean water (lakes and rivers are off limits). Beyond that, the newest option is to lower the ash urn in a specially made concrete burial reef that will become an underwater habitat attracting marine life on the ocean floor, supporting sea life for generations as a living underwater ecosystem. The Great Burial Reef can hold the remains of two people.
For those whose prefer not just a sea burial of ashes, but rather a full-body burial at sea, that too can be arranged.
A leader in the revival of this ancient custom is Captain Brad White of Marshfield. His sixyear- old company, New England Burials at Sea LLC, is on its way to becoming a million-dollar business. His is the largest burial-at-sea company on the East Coast.
White owns two boats out of Scituate, and contracts with boat captains owning 28 different boats along the Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Miami and in California. Each must pass a rigorous 177-point inspection process to be considered.
White officiates personally in most of the sea burial ceremonies. Another 10 people, from Maine to Maryland, have been schooled at his Burial at Sea “boot camp” in everything from proper captain’s attire to operations, safety, event management and filing mandatory reports with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The average cost for a two-and-a-half-hour trip, three miles to sea, for a group for 25 people with a celebration of life sea tribute ceremony is about $2,500 including water, sodas, memory bottles of ocean waters from the place of committal, ship-sealed sea burial certificates and the family is welcome to brown bag a lunch or all levels of catering are available – for about a third the cost of a traditional cemetery funeral. A lower-cost unattended scattering of ashes, captured in photos and including all of the above documentation, is only $495.
A full- fledged larger scale event for 100-400 people can run up to $12,000+. The centerpiece is a formal nondenominational service at sea, customized in each case. Researched from past eras, the service includes ringing of eight bells, an “end of watch” blessing and the firing of a portable ship’s ten gauge canon. A tribute usually includes prayers, poems and other readings with a selection of recorded music from the company’s music library of more than 1,200 songs. A live bagpiper or bugler are optional. Ocean friendly sea wreaths of native flowers often are placed in the water to float along with the cremated remains, traveling the currents clockwise at a gentle four knots of speed to Nova Scotia, Africa, back to the Caribbean and north again.
White, 52, has spent much of his life navigating the waters of Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays. He also traveled the world as business development director for The Sharper Image, a high-end consumer products retailer. Looking for a calmer lifestyle, he had started a charter fishing business. “Then somebody asked me if I could scatter their uncle’s ashes,” says White. “That turned out to be a lot more interesting. I could offer ash scatterings versus all-day tuna fishing charters. The economics are more favorable, allowing me not to focus all day on having to catch fish.”
“That’s how we started. First it was two, 20 and then 200 groups and it really just grew.” White said he grossed just $1,700 in 2006 and adds that while the logistics of selecting and training top captains and crews all over New England has taken him more than six years and is not easy, it is very rewarding as sales have grown significantly 4x year-over-year. He uses only top-quality boats with the latest safety gear, which are comfortable, fast and dry. Included are captains who are experienced, qualified, properly licensed and insured.
“There’s a tremendous interest in burials at sea. We’ve researched a 300-year-old tradition, modernized it and it’s just taken off,” White adds. “We’re so proud of the business. People rely on us for reconciliation of the loved one’s passing and they travel here from all over the world. We’re able to do that with a white-gloved approach at sea, accommodating from one to 400 people. The event usually starts sad but ends happy.”
Besides contracting with other likeminded boat captains, New England Burials at Sea also works with more than 400 funeral homes in Massachusetts and many more around the country. White emphasizes that he is not a funeral director but a licensed maritime planner. He also is associated with and supports local florists, a clock manufacturing company that provides engraved clock memorials and other local businesses to augment his successful business model. The full-body burial at sea constitutes about 5 percent of the business and also is ecofriendly.
Significant, often time-sensitive planning is required as there is no casket involved, but rather a specially designed organic oceanfriendly shroud made in Massachusetts to order. It is weighted down, according to the ancient tradition and more current U.S. Navy regulations, with 150 pounds of iron cannonballs also made locally at a historical factory on the South Shore.
“We use a sophisticated but simple process to deploy a body overboard to its final resting place with more compassion via a gentle ocean entry versus a radical drop from a 10-storyhigh Navy aircraft carrier,” says White. “We developed in Fall River the ‘2G body luge,’ not unlike the glide-free luge at the Olympic games, to allow us a smoother water entry.”
“People come to us to leave less of a carbon footprint,” says White. “Because of the greening of America, our business is flourishing.” Besides avoiding the need for caskets and cemetery plots, the company also offers biodegradable urns, shrouds and sea-friendly natural flower wreaths.
White is commissioning another boat for New England Burial at Sea and he is thinking of naming it Final Wish or Last Cast.