Green Burial at Sea?

Cremation is growing dramatically in the United States, tripling since 1972 to almost 600,000 funerals per year. By 2010, the procedure may be part of 40 percent of funerals, according to the Cremation Association of North America. With this increase, disposing of cremated human remains in meaningful ways has become a challenge. During the past decade, creative souls have launched ashes into orbit, stuffed them into duck decoys and blown them into designer glassware. Now, an Atlanta-based company offers what they say is an ecologically friendly and lasting solution that incorporates cremated remains into artificial reefs.

Would you like your cremated remains molded into a reef ball and lowered into the ocean? Don Brawley of Eternal Reefs describes it as "the only environmentally positive burial option."© Eternal Reefs

"This is a way for families to build an environmental legacy," says Don
Brawley, founder of Eternal Reefs. "People want to do the right thing with their loved ones" remains, and we’re really the only environmentally positive burial option available."

Eternal Reefs mixes funeral ashes (declared a concrete additive by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999) with cement, then molds them into a giant, hollow sphere resembling a Wiffle ball. A bronze plaque bearing the deceased’s name and dates is then attached. Eternal Reefs donates the balls to state and county reef restoration groups, which sink them between 100 yards and 12 miles offshore. After the reef module has been placed, the family of the deceased is presented with two certificates and the exact coordinates of the memorial. Thus far, more than 100 eternal reefs, ranging from $850 for a spot in an intermingled, 100-person community reef to $3,200 for the private, 4,000-pound "Atlantis" model, have been deployed along the coasts of Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina. Eternal Reefs is waiting for approval to deploy the memorials in California.

© Eternal Reefs

The reef modules attract small fish within days of deployment and begin sprouting polyps, which turn into hard growth within three months. But Dr. Bill Alevizon, a marine biologist and scientific advisor for the conservation group Reef Relief, wants people to realize that artificial reefs are no substitute for protecting living coral ecosystems. "Reef structures placed in the ocean can serve as productive habitat," he contends, "but the best way to restore reefs is transplanting live coral colonies, which only live in warm, clear and shallow seas."

Nevertheless, the reef ball is an alternative to traditional burial practices, which eat up thousands of acres of land each year. "This is something quite different," says Nick Temple, co-director of England’s Natural Death Centre, a green burial group that advocates eco-friendly funeral practices. "It’s quite
expensive, but as dissatisfaction with production-line crematoria and cemeteries increases, we expect to see more people choosing environmental options."