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Eternal Voyage: The Time-Honored Tradition of Burials at Sea

Eternal Voyage: The Time-Honored Tradition of Burials at Sea

28th Feb 2024

The ocean has always captivated the human imagination with its vast, mysterious depths and unending horizon. It's a place of immense beauty and formidable power, embodying both life and the profound mystery of the afterlife. For centuries, cultures around the globe have turned to the sea as a final resting place for their departed. This tradition spans various civilizations, each with unique ceremonies, rituals, and beliefs about the journey to the afterlife. 

Different Types of Sea Burials 

Burials at sea are as diverse as the cultures that practice them. In ancient times, the Vikings of Scandinavia were perhaps the most visually striking practitioners, with their elaborate ship burials. They believed that the sea was a pathway to the afterlife, so they would send off their distinguished dead in a boat laden with possessions, sometimes setting it aflame as it drifted away. 

In contrast, many maritime nations, including the British Royal Navy and the United States Navy, have a long history of conducting military sea burials. These are often marked by a strict protocol involving folding the national flag over the casket and its solemn release into the ocean, accompanied by a gun salute and the playing of Taps or a similar hymn. This ceremony reflects a deep respect for those who have served their country, offering them a resting place in the vast expanse of the sea. 

Modern sea burials, available to civilians through specialized services, offer an eco-friendly alternative to traditional land burials. These ceremonies can range from the simple scattering of ashes at sea to the more elaborate sinking of biodegradable urns or even artificial reef structures that serve as a memorial and habitat for marine life. Each ceremony reflects the deceased's connection to the sea, whether as a final wish to protect the environment or a symbolic return to nature. 

Cultural and Religious Significance 

For many cultures, sea burials hold profound religious and spiritual significance. In Hinduism, for instance, the Ganges River is considered sacred, and cremated remains are often scattered in its waters, believed to purify the soul and expedite its journey to moksha, or liberation. Similarly, in some Buddhist traditions, water is seen as a purifying element, making sea or river burials a means to cleanse the soul. 

In the Pacific Islands, water burials are part of a broader ancestral worship and respect for the ocean, which sustains life and, in death, receives the departed back into its embrace. These practices underscore a belief in the cyclical nature of life and the interconnectedness of all living beings. 

Noteworthy Water Burials 

Throughout history, numerous noteworthy individuals have been laid to rest in the embrace of the ocean, each story adding to the rich tapestry of sea burial traditions. For example, the legendary author of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," Jules Verne, had his ashes scattered in the sea, a fitting tribute to his fascination with the ocean's mysteries. In more recent times, the ashes of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, were scattered at sea, symbolizing his adventurous spirit and connection to the vast unknown, whether it be the depths of space or the ocean. The sea burial of Osama bin Laden following his death in 2011 was a high-profile event, albeit shrouded in secrecy and controversy, demonstrating how sea burials can also be utilized for practical or political reasons. 

Planning a Sea Burial 

It's important to be aware of the legal and environmental regulations governing such practices for those considering a sea burial, either for themselves or a loved one. In many countries, sea burials are subject to specific laws that aim to protect the marine environment while allowing for this ancient tradition to continue. This might involve permits, particular locations where burials can be conducted, and guidelines for the materials used in the burial process. Choosing a sea burial is a profoundly personal decision, often reflecting a love for the ocean, environmental consciousness, or a desire for a unique final resting place. Many find solace in the thought of being eternally connected to the earth's most mysterious and expansive frontier. 

Requirements for a Physical Burial at Sea 

Sea burials require navigating through a series of specific requirements, regulations, and compliances to ensure a dignified and lawful ceremony. For those contemplating this profound farewell, here's a streamlined guide to the essentials, along with the recommendation to engage a professional funeral service for seamless arrangements. Essential Documentation and Certifications 

  • Death Certificate: The initial step involves registering the death at the registry office, which then issues the death certificate—a crucial document for proceeding with the burial. 
  • Notice Form: Obtainable from the registry office or your chosen funeral company, this form authorizes the transportation of the deceased for burial at sea. 
  • Doctor's Certification: To comply with environmental standards, it's mandatory to certify that the body is free from infectious contaminants. This certification is usually provided by the doctor who attended to the deceased prior to death. Additional guidelines may apply in specific cases, which a professional funeral company can navigate on your behalf, including obtaining necessary permits and licenses. 

Selecting the Burial Site

The choice of burial site is regulated by maritime authorities, with designated locations earmarked for sea burials. Should you wish to consider an alternative location, be prepared for a detailed application process to obtain approval. It's crucial to adhere to these designated sites to prevent the body from inadvertently returning to shore or causing unintended disruptions, such as entanglement in fishing nets. The Environmental Protection Act outlines strict guidelines on the process and permissible locations for sea burials. 

Logistical Considerations 

A vital part of the sea burial process involves the transportation of the body or ashes to the burial site, necessitating a suitable water vessel. The choice between a boat or ship, provided by the funeral service, will depend on whether the ceremony involves a full body or cremated remains. In regions like Southern California, specialized vessels such as the Asante are available. These boats can accommodate around twenty-five passengers and travel at speeds of 23 mph, offering a dignified conveyance for the final journey at sea.

The Role of Caskets in Sea Burials 

Caskets play a unique and often highly regulated role in burials at sea, reflecting a blend of tradition, respect, and environmental consideration. Unlike traditional land burials, sea burials require caskets that are specifically designed to ensure a dignified descent to the ocean floor, while also adhering to environmental laws to prevent any harm to marine ecosystems. For full-body burials at sea, which are less common but deeply meaningful for some families, the casket must be made of biodegradable materials such as softwoods without a finish or toxic glues. 

These caskets are often weighted to ensure they sink quickly and remain on the seabed. This practice not only honors the deceased in a manner that is both respectful and solemn but also signifies a return to nature in the most literal sense. Moreover, the use of caskets in sea burials is subject to stringent regulations, varying from country to country. These regulations often stipulate the distance from land, the depth of water required for the burial, and the materials from which the casket can be made. In the United States, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees sea burials, ensuring they are conducted in a manner that protects the marine environment while allowing families to honor their loved ones according to their wishes. This careful balance between respect for the departed and for the natural world underscores the profound symbolism of sea burials. 

  • No copper, plastic, lead makeup or finishing. 
  • Caskets should be biodegradable. 
  • The coffin must sink, it must have 50 drilled holes. A weight can be an additional element to balance it. Weights, adding up to about 440 pounds, must be placed at the base of the coffin. 
  • Softwoods are the recommended material for coffins. 
  • The body must be wrapped in a shroud.

The Eternal Journey 

The practice of burials at sea reminds us of our enduring bond with the natural world and the timeless cycle of life and death. Whether through the solemnity of a military ceremony, the eco-conscious choice of a biodegradable urn, or the spiritual significance of a river burial, this tradition offers a deeply meaningful farewell to those who have passed. The endless rolling waves and unfathomable depths speak to an infinite journey of the soul and the sea's capacity to carry our loved ones into the realm of the eternal. In this way, burials at sea continue to be a powerful testament to humanity's reverence for the ocean and its