Burial at Sea

The way mankind deals with its dead says a great deal about those left to carry on…” — James Michael Dorsey
Oceans cover approximately 70.8 percent, or 361 million square kilometers (139 million square miles), of the Earth’s surface. Burials at sea have long been the accepted norm for mariners all over the world. By International Law, the captain of any ship, regardless of the vessel’s size or flag state, has the authority to conduct an official burial at sea.
The Vikings of Scandinavia laid their deceased comrade on the deck of one of their ships, pointed the ship in the direction of a beautiful sunset and had warriors shoot flaming arrows to light the funeral pyre. If the deceased was a great warrior, his woman was passed from man to man among his tribe or crew, who all made love to her (some would say raped) then strangled her to death and placed her body next to her dead husband. Viking ceremonies are now, for the most part, extinct…burning a yacht would be expensive. My wife said, “Raping and killing wives to create an extra honorable ceremony for even a great dead seaman is a bit over the top.” I don’t see the problem.
In the 17th century, the British Navy’s policy was to bury their dead mariners at sea in a burlap bag that was stitched around the body, with the final stitch going through the departed’s lips to insure they were really dead.
Today, a permit is required for burials within Australia’s territorial waters and the Continental Shelf. The privilege is only granted to people with a strong connection to the sea. The deceased, by law, is sewn into a weighted shroud with no embalming. The depth of the water must be greater than 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) and cannot interfere with shipping, fishing or undersea communications. No permit is required to scatter ashes at sea in Australian waters.
The United States requires specific preparation to ensure the body or coffin sinks quickly. California does not permit full body burials within their territorial waters or 3 miles offshore. However, 3.1 miles offshore or greater becomes United States Territorial Waters. The Environmental Protection Agency requires an internment site to be 3 nautical miles or 3.5 miles from land and at least 180 meters (600 feet) deep — 6,000 feet less than Australia mandates.
A recent investigation involving the Air Force Base Mortuary in Dover, Delaware, found that between the years of 2003 and 2008, portions of troops’ remains (i.e. body parts that were mutilated or amputated during war), were cremated and the ashes dumped in a Virginia landfill, a disrespectful practice that officials have since abandoned in favor of a dignified retirement at sea.
Protocol may dictate that the body be sewn in sailcloth with weights, burial in a casket, burial in an urn or scattering the cremains (cremated remains) on the water. The ashes can also be mixed with concrete to create different columns and structures and dropped into the ocean to help form an artificial reef such as the Neptune Memorial Reef. This phenomenon is the largest manmade reef in the world covering over 600,000 square feet of ocean floor, 3.25 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida.
My father, Dr. Carl B. Sputh, died on July 6, 2011. Prior to his death, he requested to have his ashes buried at sea. I felt privileged to have been able to perform this final act of respect for my much loved father.
On September 14, 2011, at 19:00 hours, I called together M/Y Starfire’s esteemed crew for an “all hands bury the dead” ceremony. The entire crew honored Dr. Sputh by wearing their dress uniforms…my father wore a tie for every important occasion of his life! The ship’s flags were lowered to half mast. I said a few personal words and then threw the weighted box of my father’s ashes into the wind and the sea that he loved; Latitude 32⁰25.63N, Longitude 031⁰43.29W in 3,548 meters of diamond-studded crystal blue water. The sunset was filled with colors that warmed our hearts long after the sun sunk into the unknown. Two trumpets played the haunting sound of taps in the background. The firing party for the three-volley salute was Starfire’s bosun and three flares. As the parachute flares were descending into the blue, we blew the ship’s horn indicating “signing off” in Morse Code. Every crewmember gave his or her own special hand salute, ranging from a proper military salute to a two fingered Boy Scout salute. Dad would have gotten a good laugh from the diversity of the gesture.
The reason for three volleys has conflicting explanations. Some people believe this ceremonial act stems from early wars, where the fighting ceased so the dead and wounded could be removed from the battlefield, then three shots were fired into the air to signal that the battle could resume. Others believe the three empty casings stand for duty, honor and country. I prefer the latter explanation. The ship’s horn blowing was designed by Starfire’s first mate. The actual ceremony for a burial at sea is less about rules and more about options that have been left for the living.
A “yacht essential” is to care in life and in death for all of the people who love the sea. Burials at sea include Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, who owned a 62-foot yacht called Harmony. It was his pride and joy. He once stood on the ship, looked out into the water and said the ocean is where he belonged, and that’s where he wanted to be buried. Actor Steve McQueen, Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Janis Joplin are with so many known and unknown men and women whose final resting place is the sea.
A YouTube video of my father’s service can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrnBlS1bhys. Dr. Carl B. Sputh’s ashes are now co-mingling with all of the ashes of others who, over the ages, have shared his passion for the ocean and are enjoying an afterlife filled with… Fair Winds and Calm Seas.
Captain Ted Sputh holds USCG and MCA 3000 Ton Upon All Oceans with Sail licenses and has been a professional mariner for 33 years. He is currently doing relief and delivery work. Contact him at [email protected].