Sea Reef Burial

Choosing Green Forever

by Gail Condrick

Article published in all 55 Natural Awakenings magazine franchises in the United States in March, 2009

They stand with arms entwined, supporting one another as the wind whips their hair and the rain comes down. Several generations of family and friends have gathered in final tribute to wife, mother, grandmother and neighbor. The family tosses red roses in silent remembrance to the waves as the boat rocks gently to the sound of quiet sobs from those in attendance.

An ancient tradition continues; the honoring of the dead and the continuation of life. But here there are no ashes to merge with the water; in this place and at this time, that job has already been done. Instead, a crane lowers a 400-pound memorial reef ball containing cremated remains into place 30 feet below, to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. This is no ordinary burial at sea; 15 families are gathered on a fishing boat transformed with flowers for the occasion to watch the placement on Lynn Silvertooth Reef, an artificial reef located 1.8 nautical miles off the coast of Sarasota, Florida.

This is an example of a green burial, the ultimate act of environmentalism, giving of the self back to nature in a direct way. While few of us have “Die today” on our to-do list, we can now choose environmentally friendly burial options on sea, as well as land, as part of our life plan and eco choices. In life and in death, we can quite literally go green.

Tom Rinaldi had seen a story about the artificial reefs on television and decided that was what he wanted for himself. His memorial reef ball was put in place on the same date as his 30th anniversary to his wife Dawn, as a celebration of their love.

“Artificial reefs benefit the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay. We see sea turtles, grouper, sharks and seasonal fish on Silvertooth Reef. This is a win-win for everybody,” says Mike Solum, artificial reef coordinator for Sarasota County. Florida leads the nation and is second only to Japan in artificial reef development, according to Solum.

Artificial reefs have been used to create and sustain marine life in areas that have been damaged around the world for years. These reefs create a safe haven and a nursery for new sea life and blend into the underwater landscape as living ecosystems. It is this continuation of giving life to continue life that fascinates many people who choose to return to the water for this final transformation.

Eternal Reefs, located in Decatur, Georgia, was the first company in the United States to offer memorial reefs. When founder Don Brawley’s father-in-law died in 1998, he requested his cremated remains be added to the concrete cast of the reef balls that Brawley was deploying for marine rehabilitation.

This was the first time that Brawley considered how the reef balls could be an alternative, environmentally friendly funeral option. Since then, the cremated remains of individuals, couples and even pets have found their way into memorial reef balls. The company has placed some 600 memorial reefs off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia. Reef balls are designed to last up to 500 years; tests of 600,000 reef balls deployed around the world for marine renewal show that they stay in place even during hurricanes.

According to Brawley, there is another, more spiritual reason for choosing this type of memorial; it brings survivors back to the ancient ways of direct involvement with the deceased and into closer contact with Earth. “We are in the closure business, we get people back in touch with the process,” says Brawley.

Those electing water burial appreciate the ability to practice spiritual beliefs in their own way, avoid embalming and care for loved ones at a reasonable cost. The National Funeral Directors Association estimates the average cost of a traditional funeral in the United States, not including cemetery fees, to be $6,500. Eternal Reefs, whose prices vary with the selection of one of four memorial reef options, begins at $2,500 and ranges to $6,500; although this does not include cremation costs, it does include other features that contribute to the memorial experience.

At Eternal Reefs, families are a hands-on part of the process and can choose to assist in the creation of the memorial reef ball at a plant in Sarasota. Some even leave handprints on the balls for perpetuity.

“If only 2 percent of the cremations performed in the United States each year were to become memorial reefs, we could build 15,000 to 20,000 reefs per year; just think what an environmental impact could be made,” remarks Brawley.

While the practice of burial at sea is ancient, the technology is up-to-date. Leading providers offer GPS tracking data coordinates that locate individual memorials so that families can revisit the reef and find the exact location of their loved ones for years to come. Unlike the scattering of ashes on water, this service provides a place to gather and pay homage to the deceased and to enjoy life on and under the water.

This choice, as with all choices so intimate and personal, remains a choice of the heart.  

For more information on Eternal Reefs call 1-888-423-7333.

This article appeared in March 2009 in all 50 Natural Awakenings Magazines.

Copyright © Gail Condrick, 2008

Gail Condrick is a writer and lover of all things earth and ocean living in Sarasota, Florida. Write to Gail