Tide is rising for burials at sea

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In a 2009 file photo, Jim Hutslar of Neptune Memorial Reef places a name tag on Ronald Fandrey's cremated remains, mixed with cement and placed in a starfish shaped mold for burial at sea off of Key Biscayne, Fla.  Carey Wagner, South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS
In a 2009 file photo, Jim Hutslar of Neptune Memorial Reef places a name tag on Ronald Fandrey's cremated remains, mixed with cement and placed in a starfish shaped mold for burial at sea off of Key Biscayne, Fla. Carey Wagner, South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS

Tide is rising for burials at sea

by: John Macone | .
The Daily News of Newburyport | .
published: July 29, 2015

PLUM ISLAND, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — You'd never expect to see a major Japanese broadcasting company covering a funeral here, but what happened 3 miles off Plum Island last week certainly caught its eye.

As rolling waves gently nudged the boat, 25 loved ones buried a father and sister at sea, off a coastline that holds precious memories for the family. The family members gathered on a dock in Newburyport and were transported three miles offshore to where such burials are legally permissible. There, as storm clouds gathered in the long distance, the family members took turns scattering the cremated remains in the water, along with flowers and flower pedals. A cannon onboard ship boomed in recognition of the father's World War II service, and a traditional sea blessing was held.

Quietly over the past few years, this kind of burial has become more common off the local coast. The number of sea burials of cremated remains — and even full body burials — is growing, particularly off the North Shore.

"We do a lot of burials at sea north of Boston," said Brad White, owner of New England Burials at Sea, which conducts sea burials from Maine to Florida. "The North Shore, Portsmouth, N.H., the coast of Maine — it accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of our burials."

In Japan and Asia the appeal of sea burials is growing, said White, thus the interest from the Japanese film crew. Burial plots in the island nation of Japan have become increasingly hard to find, and expensive.

In recent years, Newburyport has become a frequent boarding point for burials at sea. For many families, the waters offshore are the place where memories of summers past hold strong, said White. For others, it's the thought of being returned to the fiber of the earth that has appeal, or having a "green" funeral with minimal impact on land resources. And there are also economic considerations — it can be a lot less expensive than a traditional funeral.

The national median cost of a standard casket burial in a cemetery is about $7,000, and $8,300 in a crypt, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Sea burials can be a small fraction of that — or a lot more, depending on how elaborate the burial is.

At the low end of the financial spectrum is the "captain's burial," unattended by family members, at $495 for cremated remains. A standard funeral for cremated remains, with 35 or less people attending, is just under $5,000. The price climbs significantly depending on the number of people attending and the size of the vessel required, not to mention the choices made from a laundry list of added services such as a bagpiper ($300), sea memory bottles ($15 each), nautical map showing exactly where the remains were buried ($100), and even live broadcasts (price not listed).

Recently, some 275 people attended the burial at sea off Salem for a telephone company worker, White said.

Hard numbers on burials at sea are difficult to come by. There are over 55,000 people who die annually in Massachusetts. About half of them are buried in caskets or crypts, and the rest are cremated. Many of the cremated are buried, while others are kept in urns or scattered in a place that has special meaning to the deceased, such as a garden. Some of the cremated remains are deposited in the sea, but often this is not officially recorded.

White said a portion of his business is dedicated to people who died and were cremated a few years ago, and now the family wants "a belated burial at sea."

"It's fashionable to be late," he said.

New England Burials at Sea has affiliations with local funeral homes, among them Paul C. Rogers & Sons, which has funeral homes in Newburyport, Amesbury, Haverhill and Merrimac. Rose Rogers said her family's funeral home refers people to White's company if they are interested in having a burial at sea done, and having it done correctly. There are not many who make such requests, she said. Some of them are do-it-yourselfers.

"So many people do it on their own, from the beach, which you are not supposed to do," she said. She recalled a story in Boston Harbor in which a family was pouring out cremated remains and they were stopped by harbor police.

Full body burials at sea are also conducted. These are done 25 miles or more offshore. Bodies are placed in a biodegradable shroud that also contains 150lbs of cannonballs, reminiscent of a traditional burial at sea from days long past. The price of these burials can exceed $10,000. But White, whose business is based in Marshfield, said there is a calling for them.

"Last week we conducted two full body burials and 15 scatterings," he said.

Sea burials are legal in the United States, though there is government regulation because "technically, it's offshore dumping," said White. For every state save California, cremation ceremonies must be conducted at least 3 miles offshore. California allows it to happen just 500 yards out.

Burials at sea can be a tricky endeavor — wind, waves and weather are a huge factor. White said his company is recognized as the premier provider in the nation, and takes the job of providing the best possible conditions seriously. Consideration for wind direction while family members are depositing cremated remains, the rocking of the boat, and providing an appropriately reflective time at the scene are all pieces of the captain's puzzle.

"We pay close attention to the winds, tides and currents," he said.

©2015 The Daily News of Newburyport (Newburyport, Mass.)
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