The long tradition of burial at sea may be growing in Maine, where federal waters off Boothbay Harbor and Pemaquid Point often become a final resting place for those who choose this option.
According to Naval History and Heritage Command, an official U.S. Navy website, “As far as anyone knows, the tradition of burial at sea has been in practice for as long as people have gone to sea.”
Bodies were sewn into a weighted shroud, usually sailcloth, in earlier times. Then the body was sent over the side of the boat, typically during an appropriate religious ceremony, Naval History and Heritage Command states.
According to the largest formally recognized sea burial provider in the U.S., New England Burials at Sea, several celebrities have been buried at sea over the years, such as John F. Kennedy Jr., Janis Joplin, Neil Armstrong, and Robin Williams.
The sea burial provider has nearly 80 ports in use today, one being Boothbay Harbor.
New England Burials at Sea operates from Maine to Miami and San Diego to Seattle. It uses Boothbay Harbor year-round.
According to Capt. Brad White, founder and president of New England Burials at Sea, Maine is the most popular state in New England for sea burials.
“Of the seven ports we have in Maine, Boothbay is in the top two,” he said.
There are a few dozen burials each year out of Boothbay Harbor port, with hundreds of people coming out for the ceremonies, White said.
According to the sea burial provider’s website, its staffers are not funeral directors; however, the company works with licensed funeral directors for full-body burials at sea.
Michael Hall, owner and funeral director at Hall Funeral Homes, said he has not worked with New England Burials at Sea. Hall oversees three funeral homes, one each in Boothbay, Waldoboro, and Thomaston.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to bury … a full body at sea, but we do a lot of folks who are scattered at sea,” Hall said.
If a client inquired about a full-body burial at sea, Hall Funeral Homes would carry out their wishes.
New England Burials at Sea offers three types of burials: ash scatterings, full-body burials, and aerial ash scattering by plane.
Family can choose to attend or not attend the scatterings and sea burials; however, family cannot attend ash scatterings on the plane.
According to White, three boats based in Boothbay Harbor have a licensing contract with New England Burials at Sea. Two captains are typically aboard a boat during a ceremony.
New England Burials at Sea’s ash scatterings and full-body sea burials follow U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
Hall Funeral Homes can coordinate with two or three local boat owners that offer scatterings.
“When we meet with families and the family member has requested cremation, one of the conversations we have to talk about is what their plans are to do with the remains, to either bury them in a cemetery, or bring them home, or scatter them,” Hall said.
“Not everybody is always sure what they want to do,” he said. “We ask about scattering because when you go out to sea there are certain requirements.”
The legal federal boundary for ash scatterings is 3 nautical miles out to sea.
While at times Hall goes on board to help facilitate the scattering, other times families prefer to do it on their own.
Some families choose to use their own boat.
As for common places for families to scatter ashes in Lincoln County, “Pemaquid Lighthouse is a really notable area,” Hall said. “That’s a popular spot.”
However, a lot of the time it depends on where the deceased liked to go on their boat, Hall said.
For New England Burials at Sea, it takes about 2 1/2 to three hours to motor out to sea, conduct the ceremony, and return to land.
New England Burials at Sea uses only environmentally conscientious burial products, including ocean-friendly shrouds, urns, and flowers.
According to Hall, biodegradable urns are available in place of scattering ashes. It is an environmentally friendly and “more discreet” option, he said. The urn will float for some time and people can lay flowers over the urn before it sinks.
“Sea scatterings have become a lot more popular for a number of reasons,” White said. “Most specifically it’s greener, it’s less money, and it’s more meaningful because people that love the ocean – if they summer in Maine or Cape Cod or the Outer Banks of North Carolina – really their souls are there and they would like to have the energy of their body go back into the ocean from where they summered.”
Hall has seen some growth in the number of sea burials too. “I have been helping people for the last 30 years, and I’d say that there is probably a little bit more of an uptick in the trend,” Hall said.
“Just by virtue of living where we live on the coast of Maine, there’s definitely an attraction to the water. People enjoy being on the water or looking out at it. I think it’s a sense of comfort for people and that’s why they think it’s a good place for them to go,” Hall said.
According to Hall, many lobstermen want their ashes scattered at sea.
However, White said he sees everyone from people who make their livelihoods at sea to “some who don’t have any affinity to the ocean, but they don’t want to be in the ground with worms.”
Some families wait to scatter ashes, such as those who wait to scatter the ashes of two family members together – often married couple. Others will do it soon because their family is in town or due to a specific religious tradition, White said.
“The advantage of cremation is that you don’t have to rush,” White said. Many apparently do not rush. According to White, the sea burial provider is already booking into July and August 2020.
When a client asks to scatter someone’s remains at sea, Hall said he speaks to them about experiences he has had with other families.
Hall tells one story in particular from 25 years ago.
He met with two daughters, whose father requested half of his ashes to be scattered at sea in the Boothbay region and the other half in the Mississippi River.
The next summer he ran into one of the daughters in Boothbay, and she said she was upset with her dad about the scattering.
The woman told Hall, “Everything was fine, and then my daughter came along and said, ‘I want to put flowers on Grandpa’s grave. Where do we go?’”
She told him if the family could do it again, they would have saved some of the remains to bury in a cemetery or on their family land.
“I always share that story, so people think about it a little bit, because immediately after death the way you’re thinking and feeling is one thing, but six months to a year down the road, you’re going to be in a different mindset,” Hall said.
“If you think about it … a lot of people don’t have, say, a cemetery lot or a place to go to, so in an essence they are disappearing,” he said.
White said the atmosphere of burial or scattering at sea is different from a traditional in-ground burial.
“We treat them as a celebration of life, so there’s less mourning,” he said. People often dress and act casually.
“It’s more vibrant and open. That’s what people seem to be seeking today,” he said.
White said the circumstances behind a death can change this atmosphere and make it more solemn, similar to a traditional burial.
“I think the important part is to talk as a family,” Hall said, “because sometimes a person will say what they want, or sometimes they don’t and then it’s left up to the family.”
The preferences the deceased expressed while they were alive may not match the wishes of those who continue to live.
It is “ideal,” Hall said, to embrace having conversations about burial or cremation with family while a person is still alive.