I’ve walked away from too many graves in my lifetime, each with a profound sadness, regardless the age of the deceased. I felt like they were being left alone, even though many were in our family plot. The tradition of ground burials practiced by my family and those of my friends went unquestioned for many years. I accept these funeral practices as part of the customs of my Italian heritage...until, that is, when I became employed by a burial at sea company. Only after I accompanied several families did I come to understand the profound differences between a burial at sea and a ground burial.
One of my first solo charters took place off the coast of Long Island, NY sometime in 2006. I, along with the mates assisted the family boarding and settled them down so the vessel could safely leave the dock. “All hands in” the captain announced so the passengers wouldn’t scrape a knuckle against the dock pilings as the boat maneuvered out of its berth. I watched the expressions of the fifteen or so family and friends on board, they were mesmerized, paying close attention to activity of the deck hands as the boat pulled out. Once the vessel was free from its mooring, the mood changed as folks stood up to walk around and visited with each other. I could over hear one passenger ask the another “What do you think of all this?” To which there was a no reply, just a shoulder shrug as if to say, “To each his own."
The day was bright and deer were spotted on the bay side of Fire Island as we headed out to sea. The group split off, some stayed outside while others went into the cabin where a small memorial table was set up. At the request of one of the children, a CD of his father’s favorite songs played through the ship’s PA system. One doesn’t often hear the music of Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and other rock and roll classics at a funeral, which of course adds to the uniqueness of this experience. Once we reached the site of the scattering I went in to gather the family to explained what to expect. With all gathered around at the stern, the immediate family began with a simple prayer, then shared their individual favorite memory and funny stories, which immediately brought smiles and some laughter adding a moment of levity. The widow, now ready to release her husband’s ashes looked to out the horizon in a moment of personal reflection and emptied the container. I gave her a single rose which she tossed, followed in turn by the others, each tossing a rose. Everyone quietly remained at the rail, eyes gazed out to the water, the ashes no longer visible. Our captain started the engines to begin the Circle of Remembrance and finally head back to port while the music played on.
The music now replaced by the noise of the engines reminded the group the service was concluded. Some took refreshments and nibbled on snacks as they mulled around the boat and up to the top deck to take in the scenery. Many approached to thank me and ask questions about my job, but more importantly, they came to recognize how special a Burial at Sea is, not only for the immediate family but for all in attendance. Below are just a few sentiments taken from testimonials:
My entire family have not stopped raving about how unique and moving it was.
It was everything that my daughter and I hoped it would be!!
I just wanted to let you know that we had a wonderful, meaningful, and joyous "send-off" for our mother on the Saturday sail.
Everything was perfect -- exactly what our family needed -- and I'll be sure to recommend your services to family and friends in the future.
The experience of attending an ash scattering at sea or ocean burial is unlike any funeral service you’ve ever attended and I can confirm, one is forever left moved and even uplifted. To me this feels a natural way to say our farewells, being out in nature where our loved ones are set free. While many firmly believe it’s important to be able to visit a grave, I question if we bury our dead for us, because scattering at sea certainly feels like we’re doing it for them.