A Guide to Burials at Sea for Civilian & Military Burials

Updated

From the earliest days of ocean travel, burials at sea have been a solemn occasion to honor a person who died while on a voyage or serving aboard a ship. From the Vikings to the present day, choosing to bury someone at sea has become a sign of honor, respect, and tradition bestowed upon members of the military and, lately, civilians whose families wish to honor them in a special way.

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If you’re considering burial at sea for yourself or a loved one, this guide will provide you with everything you need to know, whether you’re a civilian or a member of the military.

What is a Burial at Sea?

A burial at sea is an alternative method of final disposition. If traditional burial or cremation is not desired, and you or your loved one would prefer a different, green burial option for disposition, burial at sea is one choice.

This full-body water burial or funeral service can be provided to civilians, active-duty military, honorably discharged retirees and veterans, and dependents of military service members. 

For civilians

Burials at sea should be distinguished from scattering at sea. Burials at sea typically reference the solemn act of committing a person’s remains to the ocean, whereas scattering at sea refers to scattering a person’s cremated remains at sea. This difference in terminology is especially important for civilian burials as it’s reflected in the pricing for burial at sea packages. 

Private companies offer full-body burial at sea, burial at sea of cremated remains in a biodegradable urn, and scattering of ashes at sea. The U.S. Coast Guard also provides a program for the burial of cremated remains at sea to civilians.

For military veterans

When it comes to military burials, burials at sea refer to either full-body water burial or the water burial of cremated remains in a biodegradable urn. The U.S. Navy provides this service to all who are eligible.

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Who Is Eligible for a Burial at Sea?

Burial at sea is available to anyone. The determining factor regarding whether you’re required to hire a private company for an at-sea burial or whether the Navy can perform the burial depends on a few factors. Here are some guidelines to follow.

For civilians

Any civilian can be buried at sea by hiring a private company to perform the service. Civilians who wish to have the Navy perform the ceremony must be a spouse or dependent of an active-duty or honorably discharged military member. 

For military veterans

The following personnel are entitled to a burial at sea performed by the Navy:

  • Active-duty members of the military
  • Honorably discharged retirees and veterans 
  • Military Sealift Command civilian marine personnel
  • Spouses and dependent family members of active-duty personnel and honorably discharged retirees and veterans

How Much Does a Burial at Sea Cost?

The cost of a burial at sea varies widely depending on the type of service or ceremony you choose. It also depends on whether you’re planning to hire a private company or ask the Navy to perform the service. 

For civilians

Prices of burial at sea vary widely depending on the type of service and add-ons requested. Here is a general guide to help you plan and budget for a private burial at sea.

Unattended service

An unattended service is a burial at sea where no family members or friends are present. The burial at sea service is carried out by the captain and his crew in a professional, dignified, and honorable manner. 

Approximate price: $9,000

Attended service

An attended service is a burial at sea service where friends, family, and clergy can be present, in addition to the captain and crew. Most service pricing includes a small number of people, often up to 15. 

For services with more than 15 people, expect an extra fee based on the number of people and the size of the boat required. 

Approximate price: $10,000

Pro tip: If you want to hold a sea burial service but also want a large number of friends and family to gather, consider holding a small attended service and a larger memorial service (on land) later on.

Add-ons

An add-on is an extra service not included in the base rate for attended or unattended services. The following are common or required add-ons and associated pricing.

Burial Shroud (Required): $1,800

Ballast Weights (Required): $300

Underwater camera recording: $500

Clergy: $125

Biodegradable Flower Wreath: $150

Rose Petals: $75

Live Bagpiper: $150 per hour

For military veterans

Those eligible for burial at sea by the U.S. Navy will receive the service free of charge. This includes loading the remains onto the ship, the ceremony, and sending the burial flag back to the family.

Costs that the family may incur include expenses related to body preparation at the initial funeral home and shipping the remains to a funeral home near the port of embarkation. These expenses vary widely depending on requested services at the time of death and shipping distance to the port.

What Happens During a Burial at Sea Ceremony?

A burial at sea ceremony looks different depending on whether you hire a private company or have the Navy provide you with the service. Here is what you can expect.

For civilians

If you hire a private company, you have a lot of say over what happens during the burial at sea. In general, package pricing starts by providing you with an hour total, 30 minutes of which is generally reserved for the ceremony out at sea. If you want more time for the ceremony, most companies offer upgrades in 30-minute increments.

The following is what you can expect if you’re conducting your loved one’s burial at sea with a private company. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines. As with funerals on land, you usually have the option to mix, match, or change most elements. For full-body burials, the body is typically present during the ceremony.

Speech or message: A member of the clergy or family can give a brief message about the deceased.

Sharing: A time of sharing can provide those in attendance an opportunity to share a special memory or tribute about their loved one.

Special music: Special music can be played live or via the boat’s intercom system. Many families choose a special song or invite a musician to play.

Video tribute: If families would like to play a video tribute, they can do so in the cabin before the committal. 

Committing the body to sea: The captain and a crew member will commit the body to the sea.

Laying of a wreath or rose petals: This is optional, but many families appreciate the symbolism of laying a wreath or scattering rose petals on the water’s surface after the body has been committed.

Final words or prayer: A member of the family or clergy will offer a final prayer or a few words about the deceased.

For military veterans

Before we get into the particulars about the ceremony, it’s important to note that all burials at sea performed by the Navy are done while the ship is deployed. This means that family and friends cannot be present for the burial. The captain will send a letter to the family specifying the date, time, and location of the committal ceremony once it has been completed. 

If you have a loved one who served in the military and wants a burial at sea, but you and your family want to be present, hire a private company to conduct the ceremony instead of requesting burial through the military.

Stationing: At the start of the ceremony, the firing squad, casket bearers, and bugler are all stationed.

Officer’s Call: The ship is stopped, and a call is given for “all hands bury the dead.” The ship’s colors are lowered to half-mast.

Assembly and Call to Attention: The ship’s crew is assembled for the service and called to attention.

Scripture reading: Scripture is read by the chaplain while attendees stand in parade rest.

Prayer: The chaplain offers a prayer for the deceased and their family while the assembled bow their heads.

Committal: The body is committed to the sea while the attendees stand at attention and salute.

Benediction: A benediction is offered while those assembled bow their heads.

Gun Salute: Three volleys are fired while the attendees stand at attention and salute.

Taps: As with other military funerals, Taps is played by a bugler signifying the end of a person’s service and their being laid to rest.

Encasing of the flag: The flag is folded and presented to the commanding officer. If the family provided the flag, the military will return it to them along with a letter from the captain with details about the committal ceremony.

How Do You Request a Burial at Sea?

As with any funeral process, several steps need to be taken to ensure necessary permission is granted for civilian or Navy veteran burials at sea.

For civilians

If you’re planning to hire a private company, you can get in contact with the company to start the process. You will need to specify the date and location you desire to start. Eventually, you’ll need to coordinate proceedings with the company and the funeral home where your loved one is kept. The company will furnish all necessary documents and permits for the burial to take place.

For military veterans

You’ll need to follow these steps to ensure you request a burial through the proper channels. 

Contact the Navy and Marine Corps Mortuary Affairs Office

This is your first step. Call the office at 1-866-787-0081 for up-to-date information regarding the process. 

Send supporting documents to the Mortuary Affairs Office

In addition to any other paperwork requested at the time of your phone call, expect to submit the following:

  • Death certificate copy
  • Burial transit permit or cremation certificate
  • Copy of DD Form 214, retirement order, or discharge certificate
  • Burial at Sea Request Form

What Are the Popular Burial at Sea Companies?

If you want to hold a private family gathering to bury your loved one at sea, it’s necessary to hire a company to perform the burial. Here are several of the best.

Sea Services

Sea Services offers several burial-at-sea options, including whole-body burial, scattering at sea, and captains’ services if the family cannot attend. They have connections with service providers all around the United States and offer scattering services in featured locations such as Hawaii, Boston Harbor, and Cape Hatteras. 

New England Burials at Sea

NEBAS offers full-body burial at sea, scattering at sea by boat, and scattering at sea by plane. In addition to services with family and guests up to 400 and unattended captain services, the company offers customization options such as a bagpipe player, laying of a biodegradable sea wreath, the scattering of rose petals, and biodegradable urns. The company serves in locations around the United States on the East and West Coast, in addition to the Gulf and the Caribbean. 

Ashes on the Sea

Ashes on the Sea has been offering ash scattering and whole-body burial at sea since 1997. They offer attended, unattended, and combination scattering services where the event takes place with onlookers on the boat and on a pier. The company specializes in services offered off the coast of California but can provide referrals to companies for locations around the United States.

Remembering Your Loved Ones with Dignity and Honor

A burial at sea not only honors your loved one’s love for the sea or military career, but it provides a dignified choice for an environmentally friendly end-of-life ceremony. If you want to honor your loved one further, you might even consider a military memorial tattoo idea that you can carry with you long after the ceremony is complete.


Sources:
  1. “Burial at Sea.” Burial at Sea, Department of the Navy, 2021. veteranfuneralcare.com
  2. “Burial at Sea.” Burials and Memorials, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2021. va.gov
  3. “Burial at Sea.” Mortuary Services, My Navy HR, 2021. mynavyhr.navy.mil
  4. Stillwell, Blake. “These are the Navy’s Rules for Being Buried at Sea.” Military Life, We are the Mighty, 19 August 2020. wearethemighty.com
  5. “U.S. Coast Guard Burial at Sea Program.” Burial at Sea Program, U.S. Coast Guard, 2021. dcms.uscg.mil
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