Richard Leach has two business cards: One asks “May I marry you;” the other says “Maritime Funeral Provider.” He has helped 69 couples tie the knot in offshore weddings. He’s also accompanied nearly 300 people on their final voyage out to sea.
As the pastor of the Maritime Chapel in Houston, Texas, nautical offshore weddings and funerals are all in a day’s work for Rev. Leach. He has been busy officiating offshore since the 1970s when he served as a chaplain in the U.S. military. He is no longer on active duty, but many of his funeral services are for military personnel. While naval and coast guard vessels routinely conduct burials at sea, families cannot attend because the vessels are not inspected and licensed to carry passengers. “They will send the family photos and videos, but most people would rather attend the service,” says Leach, who is the only provider of burials at sea in the United States who does take family members offshore for services.
During his time in the military chaplaincy, Leach attended four seminaries and was ordained six times, allowing him to serve almost any faith. He’s even performed a Wiccan burial – and a Wiccan wedding during which the guests danced naked on the foredeck after the midnight solstice ceremony.
“The captain almost charged me an extra $1,000 because they painted a pentacle on the deck,” he recalls. “Fortunately, it washed off.”
Most weddings he’s performed have been aboard the 74-foot charter vessel Akela based in Freeport, Texas. The boat is best known as a major threat during offshore sportfishing tournaments, but it readily converts to a romantic setting with a hot tub, five staterooms below, and ample deck space for up to 50 guests. “We usually have the ceremony on the stern at sunset, then you can party the rest of the night,” Leach says. “In the morning we’ll drop the bride and groom off in Galveston to catch a limo to the airport, then take the wedding party back to the marina.”
The cost for the catered charter boat and ceremony typically runs about $4,000, which is comparable to renting a chapel and renting a hall for a catered party afterwards.
While officiating his first nautical wedding on July 4, 1983, some uninvited guests joined the party after fireworks were launched from the vessel.
“The Coast Guard boarded us,” Leach says. “They had some wedding cake and told us ‘no more fireworks.’ It’s the only time I’ve had trouble.”
While weddings can make for memorable parties, the chaplain says he prefers to perform maritime funerals. “I want to make sure that everybody gets the proper respect they deserve,” he says.
He goes so far as to keep a seat with a red cushion on deck at each ceremony “so there’s a place to sit in case the spirit of the deceased wants to attend.”
While anybody can scatter ashes at sea if they are outside the three-mile boundary and report the location to the EPA, the government rules for consigning bodies to the deep are much more strict.
Bodies may be buried wrapped (traditionally sewn into sailcloth), in a perforated wood or stainless coffin, or in a sealed torpedo-shaped monument filled with nitrogen. They cannot be embalmed (the fluids kill fish and plankton), so Leach has the bodies frozen. They must be weighted down with at least 550 pounds, and the burial site must be a minimum of 600 feet deep. A permanent brass plaque must be attached to the body to provide the death certificate number, date of birth, date of death, and the number from a certificate of burial which identifies who was responsible for placing the body there.
Like scattering ashes at sea, the EPA must be notified, but locations must also be reported to the World Court in The Hague where a book lists all burials at sea.
Leach performs most of his burials from the deck of a 100-foot crew boat operated by Capt. Roy Ringrose, a retired Coast Guard chief warrant officer and owner of the School Of Seamanship in Houston. The boat has carried up to 20 people for a ceremony, including friends and family, honor guards and (for admirals and higher ranking officers) a piper and band.
Cost of Offshore Burial – A basic burial at sea runs $7,500, which is below the $8,000 average cost for a burial service on land, not including the $5,000 cost for a typical plot six feet under in a cemetery.
Leach’s preferred burial site is 1,000 feet down in a trench located 109 miles off the Gulf coast. Leach uses a weighted cable with a camera attached to select each new gravesite before sliding the body down to its final resting spot. He has carefully aligned the bodies in rows, forming what he hopes will one day be designated as the first offshore national cemetery.
“If we get it designated, it would be marked on all of the charts and protected as a no-fishing area,” he says.
Currently, a cemetery must have 380 military personnel interred to qualify for the designation, so he still has ways to go.