Burial at sea is an old marine tradition and was quite common when sailors might stay at sea for long periods of time with no provisions for storing the remains of those who passed away. In modern times, this method of burial is still practiced by navies around the world, as well as by other individuals. Burial at sea is legal in the United States, as long as you follow all of the appropriate regulations. Both cremated and non-cremated remains can be buried at sea.
It’s important to note that “burial at sea” specifically indicates that remains are placed in the ocean, not a lake, pond, or other body of water. The disposition of cremated remains in bodies of water other than the ocean is typically regulated by individual states or localities in the U.S., so you need to check with your local government to find out if doing so is legal.
EPA Regulations for Burial at Sea
The basic burial at sea regulations as issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) general permit under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA) states the following:
- Remains must be buried in a location at least 3 nautical miles (3.45 statute miles or 5.556 km) from land.
- For non-cremated remains, the ocean water must be at least 600 feet (183 meters) deep at the burial site. In some locations, including areas around Florida and the Mississippi River Delta, ocean water must be at least 1,800 feet (549 meters) deep.
Caskets and Preparation
- No plastic materials can be used.
- Caskets should have at least six 3-inch holes drilled in them so that they will sink quickly.
- Additional weight may be added to the casket to ensure that it sinks.
- Stainless steel chains should be wrapped around the casket or burial shroud to help keep the remains at the bottom of the ocean.
- Cremated remains that are not scattered should be placed in a biodegradable container that will break down relatively quickly in the water.
- You must notify the EPA of the location of the burial at sea within 30 days of the burial.
The Challenges of Conducting a Sea Burial
At first glance, these guidelines seem pretty simple. Following them, however can be complicated, time consuming, and expensive.
Finding a Location
Finding an appropriate location that follows the EPA’s rules, for example, is often a challenge. You must make sure that you’re not only 3 nautical miles from the low water mark (or “closing line” for bays and rivers that’s shown on nautical charts), but you must also determine the depth of the ocean floor in that location for a non-cremated burial.
Of particular importance is the fact that the United States is surrounded by the Outer Continental Shelf, an extension of the continent’s land under the water. While the width of the shelf varies by location, its depth is relatively shallow – rarely more than 500 feet (152 meters). That means that, in many locations, you will need to travel out beyond the Outer Continental Shelf for a burial at sea. If you need to charter a boat for the sea burial, this could get very expensive very quickly.
Finding a Casket and Chains
In addition to finding an appropriate location, you would also need to purchase the appropriate type of coffin and weights to ensure that the non-cremated remains descend to the ocean floor appropriately and stay where they are placed. Because you may need a specialized casket and steel chains, this will likely be more expensive than average.
Chartering a Boat
Unless you already have access to a boat and are familiar with operating that boat in the open ocean, you’ll need to hire or charter a vessel. This can add a considerable cost to a funeral at sea, especially if you have to travel 20 or 30 miles to reach an appropriate location. You’ll also need to arrange for the casketed remains to be transported to the boat, and to make sure that the vessel has the appropriate equipment to place the casket into the water.
Remember that, in addition to the costs required to be buried at sea, you may also need to pay the more traditional funeral expenses, like a memorial service on land and preparation of the body. Depending on the weather and sea conditions, you may also have additional charges associated with the charter boat, such as if extra time is required for the trip or more crew need to be present. On average, you should probably expect to pay at least 2 to 3 times more for a burial at sea than you would for a more traditional funeral on land.
Sea Burials for Cremated Remains
While there are some very strict guidelines for a sea burial of non-cremated remains, the rules are less stringent if the deceased has been cremated. You typically will still need to travel at least 3 nautical miles from land, but you do not need to be concerned with the depth of the ocean. In addition, there are some states that allow for the spreading of ashes within 3 miles of shore; in California, for example, you can scatter ashes in the sea as long as you’re at least 500 yards (0.25 nautical miles) away from shore.
When the sea burial involves cremated remains, you don’t need to ensure that those cremains stay on the ocean floor. You can scatter them on the surface of the water or use a biodegradable urn that will sink and then slowly dissolve under the ocean, releasing the ashes. In addition, it’s much easier to transport and store cremated remains.
Rather than traveling by boat, some people choose to have cremated remains buried at sea from an airplane. It’s best to hire a professional service with experience scattering ashes, because it can be challenging to release the cremains with the wind conditions experienced during flight.
Navy Burial at Sea
The U.S. Navy Mortuary Affairs Office has a Burial at Sea program that allows certain individuals to be buried at sea from a U.S. Navy vessel. A committal ceremony is held while the ship is deployed, and as a result, family members cannot be present for the funeral at sea. The family will be notified of the date, time, and geographical location of the burial after it has been completed.
The only people who are eligible for the United States Navy Mortuary Affairs Burial at Sea program are the following:
- Active duty service members
- Honorably discharged retirees and veterans
- The dependent family members of active duty, retired, or veteran service members
- Military Sealift Command U.S. civilian marine personnel
Both cremated and non-cremated remains are eligible for a Navy burial at sea, and the preparation of those remains is the responsibility of the family or other authorized individual. In other words, the authorized person will need to arrange the cremation and a biodegradable urn to transport the ashes, or have the body prepared and placed in an appropriate casket. The cremation urn must be shipped to the appropriate port of embarkation, while casketed non-cremated remains must be transported to a funeral home near a port and the Navy coordinator notified.