History of Burial at Sea

Sea burial is not just movie stuff. The practice of full-body burials or scattering ashes in the ocean waters is an ancient one. Saying farewell to a deceased loved one is difficult. However, there are ways in which you can make funerals seem worthy and impressive. Though the history of burials at sea goes back thousands of years, the time-honored tradition is regularly followed even today around the world. This type of funeral allows you to create a memorable “Final Voyage” for your departed loved ones. Sea burials are unique as well as environment-friendly.

In this article, we’ll discuss the history of sea burials, how these funerals are carried out and how you can easily plan, arrange and conduct it for your departed loved ones with the assistance of burial-at-sea services.

What is a Sea Burial?

A burial at sea is a process in which the funeral ceremony of the deceased person is performed in the open waters from a ship or boat.

During a sea burial, either the full body of the departed or their mortal remains are buried into the ocean. Earlier, the privilege of this type of burial was reserved only for the members of the Royal Navy. However, it is now available to civilians as well all across the world. Before you can conduct a funeral ceremony in this way, you will need to fulfill some licensing requirements.

If the right steps are followed and the essential permits acquired, anyone can plan and organize funerals at sea. A professional funeral company will help you arrange the entire burial in a proper manner.

A Look into the History

Sea or ocean burials have been recorded by historians of different eras. If you go through the religious and historical accounts, you will come to know that this tradition is as ancient as the early civilizations.

Ancient Times:

Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations followed sea burials as a common funerary practice, along with other costumes, rites and rituals of those times. Historians have recorded multiple instances of sea burials practiced by all the ancient civilizations. Though burial on land was their preferred way of burial, whenever the need arose, these people carried out burials in the ocean. Sea burials were usually done whenever a land burial was difficult.

Common reasons for carrying out ocean burials included:

  • Deaths during battles
  • When the deceased were long distances from home
  • When land burials were difficult or impossible
  • Spiritual beliefs

The ancient people would either wrap up the body of the deceased and lower it into the sea from a ship or place the dead on a reef for the seabirds to consume or simply launch it out in a canoe.

burial at sea

The prevalence of sea burials can be accredited to the Vikings. “Ship burials”, as they would call it, were performed in multiple ways by them. The ships along with the bodies of the deceased were either cremated, set alight and pushed out to the ocean for burial. Not just the body of the dead, they would also bury a wide range of traditional objects along with it. So, the fire would burn down the ship and later the wrecks were consumed by waves.

The Vikings used a whole naval ship as the container for burying the dead into the open waters of the ocean. The Norse Sagas provides further details on how these sea burials were carried out. These sagas also record the scattering of the human remains or ashes across the ocean.

It is through the Vikings that the practice of sea burial traveled to the British Isles when they invaded the place in 700 A.D.

The British:

It was customary for the British seamen to cremate the dead in the ocean. Particularly, the British Navy often performed sea funerals for their deceased members. In contrast to the British seamen, the Spanish and the French preferred to give the dead land burials. If any sailor died while at sea, they kept the body on board and let the funeral wait until they arrived at a port.

Stories reveal that sailors had superstitious beliefs. That is why they often buried their dead mates into the sea.

Seamen had a belief that seabirds would carry the souls of the deceased sailors to the hereafter. Not only that, the sailors also saw it as bad luck to do any kind of harm to seabirds. As a result of these superstitious beliefs, they often practiced sea burials for the dead sailors.

In fact, the British performed sea burials in a unique manner. After a sailor was dead, the others would have the ship’s sailmaker make a shroud, into which the body of the deceased was then sewn. The material for the shroud came from the sleeping hammock which the sailors used. Rumor has it that the stitches of the shroud went through the nose of the dead. This was done to ensure the sailor being cremated was really dead. Finally, some weight was tied to the dead body and it was lowered down into the sea for cremation.

Before the dead body was sunk into the ocean, the captain of the ship conducted a religious rite to pay homage.

Wartime Burials at Sea

During a war, it is common for the dead soldiers to get a sea burial. The at-sea burials during the Falklands War and the Pacific Campaign are good examples of recent times. However, what makes wartime sea burials difficult is the lack of resources to perform the funeral properly. In military ships, sea burials are carried out without putting the deceased into a casket. The body is just sewn into weighted sailcloth and put down into the open water.

Nowadays, the body of the dead soldiers can be taken back to the shore via an aircraft and carry out a land burial instead.

Religious Traditions

In all major religions practiced in the world today, sea burials are accepted. However, the scope and limitations for carrying out these types of open water funerals vary from one religion to another.

In Christianity, it is permissible to perform sea burials. The Roman Catholic Church also allows the burial of the full body or scattering the remains in the ocean. However, they do not have it as a common practice. Protestantism has laid out in complete detail as to how the entire at-sea burial will be conducted. Islamic traditions also allow burials in the open water. As per their scriptures, the body of the deceased can be buried into the sea, if land burial is difficult or impossible.

In Hinduism, it is customary for the followers to immerse the ashes or the remains of the cremated into the Ganges or any other river.

What Today’s Sea Burials Look Like

The tradition of sea burials still continues. Whether it is the military or civilians, both can carry out funeral ceremonies in the open water. However, strict environmental rules and regulations need to be followed.

United States:

Anybody in the U.S. can plan and arrange a sea funeral with the help of a professional funeral company. However, the concerned authorities have designated some specific sites for sea funerals. For example, there are sites for sea burials off the coast of San Pedro, Long Beach, Redondo Beach, Los Angeles and Catalina Islands. If you plan to arrange a sea burial for your deceased loved ones in any of these locations, you should reach out to Burials at Sea. The company will properly acquire the required permits and approvals and properly plan the entire at-sea funeral for the departed in a memorable and dignified manner.

Burials from a U.S. military vessel are, however, reserved for only a certain group of veterans or officials, who are as follows:

  • Those in active military duty
  • Veterans honorably discharged
  • Retirees honorably discharged
  • Dependents of all of these

The commanding officer of the military ship will carry out the entire at-sea funeral for the deceased. The family of the deceased will be sent a letter with all the essential details of the burial. If the family wishes, they can provide a burial flag of their own to be used at the ceremony and have it returned after the ceremony is over. The Navy and Marine Corps Mortuary Office will need to be contacted to complete the application process in this regard by the family of the departed.

United Kingdom:

During the 18th and 19th century, the British would first put the body of the deceased in sailcloth and then weigh it down with cannonballs and then finally release the body into the ocean.

In England, civilians can scatter the remains of the departed loved ones across the sea without any restrictions. However, if it is a fully-body sea burial, all the environmental regulations must be complied with. Right from the material of the coffin to the site of burial at sea, everything will need to be properly planned and the permits acquired in the case of a full-body sea funeral.

Australia:

In the similar manner, native Australians are also required to fulfill a set of maritime regulatory guidelines. It is not easy to acquire the permits though. To be able to get the permits, the deceased has to be involved in a profession associated with the sea. Or, the deceased must have been a Navy personnel. There are several other rules and regulations that will need to be complied with. For example, the body will need to be placed in a metal casket or it can be sewn into a shroud as well as released into the ocean at a specific depth under the water.

Likewise, every country in the world has some specific set of maritime regulations to be met for conducting at-sea burials. Wherever it is, the site for sea burial needs to be selected in a well-planned manner. If the location is not suitable, there is a risk that the buried body might return to the shore due to strong currents or the body can be disturbed by commercial fishing nets cast in the sea.

For making the at-sea burial perfect as well as memorable, you will need the expert help of a professional funeral company.

Famous People Buried at Sea

The list of all famous people and personalities buried at sea is quite long. Here is a list of some of them:

Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980): ashes scattered into the Pacific Ocean
Steve McQueen (1930–1980): ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean
Dennis Wilson (1944–1983): buried in the Pacific Ocean off California
Stan Getz (1927–1991): ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean off Malibu, California
Vincent Price (1911–1993): ashes scattered off Point Dume in Malibu, California
John F. Kennedy, Jr (1960–1999): ashes scattered into the Atlantic Ocean
Doug Henning (1947–2000): ashes scattered into the Pacific Ocean of Redondo Beach, California
Robin Williams (1951–2014): ashes scattered in San Francisco Bay

Planning a Sea Burial for Your Deceased Loved One?

From getting all the paperwork done and getting an MMO-approved coffin to liasoning with a boat charter company as well as arranging for transportation from funeral home to the vessel or the shore, sea burial is a painstaking process. With Burial at Sea by your side, you can have it all planned, organized, and implemented in a professional and memorable manner. Our funeral company specializes in assisting with sea burials off the Southern California Coast. We provide full body casket burials and scattering ashes at sea in locations off the coast of Long Beach, Redondo Beach, San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Catalina Island.

Honor the final journey of your deceased loved ones with an unforgettable sea burial off the Southern California Coast. To schedule your consultation, you can call our office or shoot us an email using the contact form.

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