“…in the ocean cemetery, the king, the clown, the prince and the peasant are alike, undistinguishable." (George Bruce, 1884).
Those words above certainly make you think.
Monuments in a cemetery or graveyard say something about the deceased. But there’s no permanent marker on show when someone has been buried at sea.
How many of you have ever attended a sea funeral? Very few, I’d have thought. I’ve not even done one yet as only a few are done in the UK each year (they are more complicated, and also quite expensive). But I reckon I might do one, reasonably soon; they are environmentally-friendly, after all, with very strict rules, so it stands to reason that if many people are increasingly drawn down the ‘green’ path in life, then why not in death too?
Burials at sea are nothing new, of course, especially for former sailors, naval officers and people who happened to die during long voyages. But many others have been buried at sea as well. In 1984 Dennis Wilson (below), one of the co-founders of the Beach Boys, was buried off California, with President Ronald Reagan even intervening to help the process along.
The bodies of many Titanic victims were picked up by rescue boats in 1912, with some of them then buried at sea. And, famous adventurer and seafarer Sir Francis Drake (considered a pirate by the Spanish - he defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588), was also buried at sea, off the coast of Panama, in full armour and in a lead casket. This was apparently to ensure no one – especially the Spanish – would find his body. There are still searches for his coffin in the 21st century!
You certainly don’t have to be an ex-sailor or a celebrity to be buried at sea, though. Anyone can if they have the money to pay for it. But you can’t just do it wherever you like. Cremated ashes can be scattered anywhere (for example, film director Alfred Hitchcock was scattered in the Pacific Ocean and comedian Robin Williams in San Francisco Bay). But there are only three sites in England where actual burials at sea are allowed.
Here in the north of England they are allowed off Tynemouth (below), North Tyneside. The other two places are near Newhaven, off the Sussex coast, and near The Needles, Isle of Wight. Each location has been chosen carefully, to mitigate against the small possibility of a body being picked up by fishing nets or returning to shore due to strong currents. And, just in case, a body buried at sea must have an ID tag on it.
There’s paperwork to be dealt with, naturally, including proving the body is not infected. A special licence must be applied for. And the coffin and any inner box or lining must be made from natural non-toxic and biodegradable materials, with absolutely no plastic, lead, copper or zinc. It must be strong enough to withstand any impact and be able to take the body quickly to the bottom of the sea. Holes have to be drilled throughout the coffin and extra weight added to the base. Furthermore, embalmed bodies cannot be buried at sea, as the preservatives used could cause water pollution and spoil a beautiful area.
It’s also vital (and kind of obvious!) that the boat taking you and the coffin out to sea must be big enough to carry everyone, and have GPS so the burial happens in exactly the right place.
As for the service - well, it can be held on the boat. But given that our coastal waters are often very choppy indeed and it can take a few hours to reach the burial site, many people prefer to have a memorial on shore. Sea burials are called off if the weather’s too bad.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone interested in having a sea burial. Finally, if you do choose this option, it's worth remembering that it will be the only sea voyage you ever take where it doesn’t matter one bit if you suffer from seasickness!
Until next time,