Everything You Wanted to Know About Burial at Sea But Were Afraid to Ask
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Below are the most common questions I receive from both funeral professionals and clients alike. Is it legal to scatter ashes? Is it only for military personnel? Do the ashes blow back?
Here are the short answers to the above. Yes, it is legal to scatter cremated remains. No, a burial at sea, be it scattering cremated remains or a full body burial, isn’t only for military personnel. And no, ashes will not blow back on the individual or those nearby when performed properly. (I know "Full Body Burials" caught your eye, this is a topic unto itself which I’ll cover in another blog post.)
Today, with the rate of cremation rising and our more open dialogue pertaining to our final wishes, families are choosing scattering ashes at sea, often referred to as a burial at sea, immersion of ashes or just scattering. In addition, as other cultures migrate to the US, they assimilate and adapt their customs to fit their new country. For example, Hindus traditionally scatter in the Ganges River, however given today’s busy lifestyles it’s often simply not feasible to travel, therefore Hindu families find it perfectly acceptable to scatter in the oceans off of US shores. With gaining popularity, acceptance and education, thousands of ash scattering ceremonies are performed annually, and full body burials are also gaining in popularity, although cost wise, it’s far more expensive.
Where are these ash scatterings taking place you might ask? Well, in almost any popular coastal city you can expect several hundred per year.
So, what else would you like to know? Well, let’s go back to the first three questions posed. The standard distance from shore as set forth by the EPA is 3 nautical miles. If being so far off shore sends you into a panic attack, don’t fear, many captains will remain closer to shore. While it is feasible that a Coast Guard vessel could approach it’s highly unlikely. I came across one article that said, “There ain't no ash scattering police”, and while that is true, by and large most captains wish to perform the scattering a good distance off shore. Captains know the nuances of their locale and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize his or her captain’s license.
On the topic of “blow back”, meaning the cremated remains blowing back onto the boat or the person scattering, is a long-held fear. Scattering tubes are widely used to direct the flow down and away from the person releasing the remains. In addition, the captain will point the bow (front) of the boat into the wind; tell you to stand either starboard (right) or port (left). An easy way to remember is port and left both contain four letters. Don’t worry, your captain will be sure to direct and assist you in every way.
Regarding military funeral benefits: active duty members of the uniformed services, retirees and veterans who were honorably discharged, US civilian marine personnel of the Military Sea lift Command and dependent family members of active duty personnel, retirees and veterans of the uniformed services are all eligible. The US Navy Mortuary Affairs Burial at Sea Program details can be found here.
Cremated remains go out on the next deployed vessel from one of five US locations; however family members are not allowed on board. Hence, many families chose to plan a private burial at sea. With proper planning, Military Honor Guards can perform Taps and the Flag Folding Ceremony dock-side and in some cases come on board to perform the service.
Today, we’re a society on the move; many of our loved ones relocate for various reasons, which renders a cemetery burial impractical. This is just one factor in the rise of cremation and the popularity of Sea Memorial Ceremonies.