How Water Burials Work: Process, Cost & Impact

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Maybe you’ve decided that a traditional burial isn’t for you. They can be costly, not always eco-friendly, or they don’t align with how you’d like to be remembered. 

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Luckily, the industry and consumers have gotten creative and are exploring ways they can minimize their long-term impact on the earth even after death One particular eco-friendly burial option that’s gained a lot of attention: water burials. 

What’s a Water Burial? 

Water burials are an act of disposing of the remains of a loved one in a body of water. In most cases, this involves the scattering of cremated ashes over water. A more recent trend incorporates the use of biodegradable urns for a water burial. These urns are filled with ashes and placed in the water, where they will break down over time. The urns are completely biodegradable, so leave no harmful substances behind when they degrade. 

It’s less common, but in some cases, a complete body is buried at sea. It is submerged in a specially-made casket or shroud and set adrift. Shrouds should be made of natural fibers so they easily break down over time. Shrouds and caskets will both need to be weighted down so the body will sink to the bottom of the ocean.       

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How Much Does a Water Burial Cost? 

The prices of water burials can vary depending on what elements you want to incorporate, and how you plan to dispose of the deceased. To ensure you’re getting the right price, comparison shop between other companies in your state. 

It’s important to keep in mind that there may be different kinds of permitting fees in different states, so the best way to ensure a fair comparison is to work with companies that are local to where you plan to perform the burial.

Unattended disposal of ashes at sea

If you want to honor the wishes of your loved one by arranging a water funeral but you’re unable to arrange to scatter the ashes yourself, there are many companies out there who will scatter ashes on your behalf. This can be a big relief to people who are too elderly or ill to go out on a boat.

This is also an incredibly affordable option. The price ranges from location to location but is typically between $100 and $400. Some companies will even take a video of the scattering for mourners as a keepsake.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines stipulate that the scattering of ashes must take place three miles offshore. However, some coastal states have exceptions to that rule. In the State of California, the scattering of ashes is allowable 500 yards offshore, so you can hire a company that will scatter the ashes for you offshore while mourners watch from the shore. This could cost anywhere from $150 to $800. 

Attended disposal of ashes at sea

If you’d prefer to participate firsthand in the scattering of a loved one’s ashes, you can arrange for an attended disposal of ashes at sea. You can do this on your own, or hire a company to oversee all of the arrangements. It’s possible to scatter the ashes or put them in a biodegradable urn for water burial.

An attended disposal at sea is similar to an offshore memorial service. It can be as formal or as casual as you’d like it to be. A ceremony may include friends and family formally eulogizing their loved ones, or sharing simple stories and memories. 

You can incorporate a small sermon or prayer from a religious leader or the captain of the vessel. These kinds of services can start from $250 to $1,000 for a small group (up to ten people). Larger groups (10 to 35 people) can range in price from $1,500 to $3,200. 

The wide variance in cost comes down to the number of amenities or extra services you choose to include.     

Full-body burial at sea

Full-body burials are more involved than the practice of scattering ashes. When you buy the body at sea, you’ll have to be at least three miles offshore and water will have to be at least 600 feet deep. The body must be in a specially-made casket or a burial shroud. 

Full-body burial prices start anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000, but can go even higher depending on the length of the boat ride and the number of guests. Like an attended scattering, added items like a memorial service, music, food, beverages, or flowers will increase your cost.   

What Happens During a Water Burial?

Like any other funeral, every underwater burial is tailored to the preferences of the deceased. But, there are some universal things you can expect at each water burial.

Board the boat

Mourners will arrive at the predetermined time to board the boat. The price of the service is partially based on how long the boat journey takes, so you’ll want to arrive on time. Delays could cost the organizer extra money, or the boat may depart without you.

Arrive at destination

A hired company will ensure that they follow state and federal regulations about disposing of human remains at sea. They’ll take mourners at least three miles offshore, and will make sure that water is 600 feet deep in the case of full-body disposal.

Service commences

The deceased’s family or friends will have planned out a service. This might include eulogies, a prayer given by the boat captain or a religious figure, or the sharing of fond anecdotes and memories about the deceased. 

When the time comes, the remains will be released into the sea. In a full-body burial, a casket or shroud-covered body will be lowered feet first into the water. 

If the deceased has been cremated, their ashes may be placed in biodegradable urns for water burial or they may be scattered loose. The ashes will be divided between people to be scattered based on the wishes of the deceased.

How to Plan a Water Burial

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that you get a permit to dispose of human remains at sea, regardless of whether you’re disposing of a full body or releasing ashes. This permit needs to be filed within thirty days of the burial. 

If you hire a company to arrange a water funeral, they should handle that paperwork for you as part of their fee, though you should verify that with them. If you decide to perform your ceremony without outside help, you can use the Burial at Sea Reporting Tool on the EPA website. 

Several different companies make biodegradable urns for a water burial. These will safely disintegrate into the water. You can order them ahead of your service. Many people prefer this method, as it prevents ashes from blowing back on the mourners during the service.

Water Burials: A Traditional Burial Alternative

Traditional burials can have a major impact on the environment, thanks to the use of toxic embalming chemicals, and caskets that won’t biodegrade. 

As more and more people become aware of the environmental impact of conventional burials, they are beginning to turn to cremation as an alternative, along with space burials, coral reef burials, green burials, and other non-traditional methods. With cremation on the rise, there may be an increase in underwater burials, too. 


Sources

  1. “Burial at Sea.” EPA United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Government, 10/05-2019, https://www.epa.gov/ocean-dumping/burial-sea#instructions.
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