This is a story that begins at the end.
Burial at sea seems a misnomer – the word ‘burial’ suggests that soil ought to be involved – but throughout history many bodies have intentionally been despatched below the waves forever, and some still are.
Traditionally, naval men who died at sea were sewn into a shroud of canvas – most likely an old sail – with a cannonball at their feet as ballast to carry them to the sea floor. (Try that with your old #1 light mylar genoa). The final stitch was driven through the deceased’s nose septum – to check that he/she was actually dead. If they sat up suddenly and said ‘Ouch’ then it would be out of the shroud and back to work.
With a few variations, the burial by shroud option is still available today.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, there are five designated sites for burials off the New Zealand coastline. These are all over 500m deep, not suited for trawling activities and are marked on nautical charts. At 500m the pressure is 50 atmospheres – or 735 psi.
The northernmost is 38nm north-east of Cape Brett within a four-mile radius of 34ºS, 175o 50’ E. Next is 27nm east of Cuvier Island at 36º 28’S, 176o 20’E or 30nm south of Wellington at 41ºS, 175º01’E. The South Island sites are 55nm NE of Lyttelton at 43º 15’S, 174ºE or 25nm SE of Otago Harbour at 46ºS, 171º 1’ E. All sites cover an area with a 4nm radius centred on the coordinates.
These sites were chosen after consultation with iwi and other interests.
French explorer Marion du Fresne would have been well-advised to take the same precautions when he anchored in the Bay of Islands in 1772. Many of the crew on his two ships – Mascarin and Marquis de Castries – were suffering from scurvy but Ngare Raumati tribespeople (overun by Ngapuhi a few years later), obligated by their tradition of manaakitanga (hospitality), fed them fish and vegetables.
Du Fresne had unwittingly anchored on a prime fishing ground and when the Frenchman started discarding the bodies of his dead shipmates overboard, thereby befouling the locals’ food source, they retaliated by declaring a rahui or ban on fish from the reef. A series of misunderstandings ensued which saw du Fresne and several of his crew killed by Maori and many tribespeople gunned down by French musketry.
Scattering of a deceased person’s ashes is legal anywhere off the coast but whole-body burials require a specially-built casket with air vents and ballast to make it sink.
The regulations do not require embalming but do state that a ‘casket or container’ must be used. They don’t limit the type of container: only that it must withstand marine conditions prior to burial and remain intact as it enters the water. It should not float and should sink quickly to the seafloor.
“Wooden coffins are more often used in New Zealand funerals, but these can be problematic for sea burials because their shape and materials makes them particularly buoyant,” says the website.
“Whichever shape or material is used, it needs to meet the rules. It is fine to bury people at sea in shrouds or similarly soft materials. There is a long tradition of sailors being wrapped and sewn into a sailcloth for their burial. However, the fabric must be strong enough to remain intact when it enters the water and descends to the seafloor. The shrouded body could additionally be secured to a board, to assist handling during transport and during the burial.”
STAYING INTACT ON ENTERING THE SEA
Weather and sea surface conditions on the open ocean are variable and sometimes rough. Depending on how the casket or container is lowered, there may be a significant height between the craft and the water.
“We recommend the container is secured with additional strapping to keep it intact during the burial. You could use cargo webbing or ratchet straps, chains or ropes. In Britain and the United States, steel bands are used to secure caskets, placed width-wise and lengthwise. Please also ensure that the strapping cannot slip off the container during handling.
“Shrouds or sail cloths should be securely fastened. These could be sewn, tied shut or strapped around the outside.
“Many people have an affinity towards flax garments or woven flax matting,” it continues. “Materials woven from flax may be considered as a suitable shroud provided they are strong enough to withstand the burial process.
“The casket or container needs to sink to the seafloor and not resurface. It must sink quickly so it does not drift far from the recorded burial location or drift outside of the authorised burial location. The amount of weight depends on whether a casket or shroud is used. For caskets, we recommend that additional weights are added that are equivalent to, or more than, the mass of the person to be buried, to offset the buoyancy of the casket. For burials in shrouds, we recommend adding additional weights equivalent to half of the body mass.
“Ensure that the integrity of the casket or covering is not compromised by adding the weights, and that the weights will not obstruct the handling before and during the burial,” the website adds. Weights should be non-toxic. For example, you could use iron, steel, sand or concrete weights, but not lead.
“If there is air in the container, make sure it can escape quickly. For an average-sized casket or coffin, the EPA recommends drilling 20-30 50mm holes. For a shroud or sail cloth, ensure there are holes in the fabric where the air can escape. These could be reinforced with eyelets. Ensure that escaping air will not cause damage during sinking.”
The former coastal trader Te Aroha – which has since met her own watery end – was chartered some years ago to dispose of the body of a former naval officer at sea off Wellington. A platform was fastened to the gunwale at one end with a block and tackle rigged up a mast at the other. Once the approved site was reached, a bugler played the Last Post, the man’s former shipmates heaved on the tackle and the enshrouded navy man slid into the sea on his final voyage.
“Funny thing was,” a crewman told me later, “on the way out they talked about him in the present tense – but on the way home they referred to him in the past tense.”
A stitch through the nose doesn’t do it these days and people arranging a burial at sea require a death certificate signed by a doctor, an EPA permit ($200–$300) and a photo of a GPS readout or other proof that it was carried out in the approved location area.
Cemeteries throughout the Western world are getting crowded so it may make sense to take a final rest in that 70% of the planet covered by the water, and which provides so many of us with our fun and recreation.