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Burials at Sea…Down wind, down tide, and off we go




By Captain Brad White


Marshfield Hills – In the first of our three part series, we covered the rise in popularity of the 300-year old tradition of Burials at Sea.

This month, our focus is on the federal and state laws and regulations on how and where to scatter remains by boat or airplane.

This subject prompts many questions, such as, is it legal, how and where can we do it, and, what’s the best way to do it?   There are 14 common questions that arise most often, and you can view answers on www.CapChats.com – a series of one minute YouTube clips of two captains, one on each coast, discussing burials at sea.

On the east coast of the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) law states that scatterings are allowed three miles east of land past an imaginary “demarcation line” where state waters end and federal waters begin. For interest sake, international waters start at 200 miles east of land, but this is not relevant to what we are talking about here.  Federal ocean water is where you need to be and that is three plus miles off-shore. It’s important to know that EPA regulations forbid scattering in rivers, lakes, and streams.

Of first importance when planning a burial at sea is to locate a well-equipped boat with an experienced captain.  We recommend a vessel of 30 feet or greater, piloted by a licensed USCG captain and mate.

The key to a successful ash scattering is to anchor, allowing the boat to face into the wind and scatter from the stern (rear of the boat) below the gunnels and ideally during an outgoing tide. Once cremated remains are scattered, they create a large ash plume that gently sinks and spreads out in a somewhat beautiful way.  Rose petals and other light-colored florals are typically placed atop the ash plume out of respect and they are able to follow their path for a longer time. Sunflowers and gladiolus provide a nice visual while circling.  Cremated remains will travel the warm ocean currents for a long time.

Many people like to think of their loved one traveling the world forever.

An ocean friendly urn that gently sinks to the bottom in just a few minutes is an option to scattering ashes that many choose. To scatter cremated remains lawfully on the east coast of the USA, you have to be three miles to sea, there is no regulation on ocean depth. A permit must be obtained from the EPA for scattering human cremated remains.

An exception, in California, scatterings at sea happen regularly with over 750 funeral establishments who lobbied their state legislators and won a minimal requirement of 500 yards off shore versus the three-mile rule. We don’t think that short distance gives the family time to process what is happening and we find that the three-mile rule best suits that.

While this offers flexibility to the customer, our typical two-hour, six-mile round trip at sea event gives a grieving family more valuable and necessary time to process and not rush such an important event. For instance, many people have never been on a boat, or have not been to sea past the beach or maybe have feelings to reconcile, and the longer two-hour portal to portal event gives them that experience while they take in the incredible wildlife seen while at sea.

Another option is scattering by airplane.  For this event we first have a simple yet dignified tarmac side ceremony for the family, allowing them their final goodbyes.  Once aloft and over the chosen area, we create an airborne red rose petal field.  We then make another pass over that fluttering field of petals while scattering the cremains via the Air Glide – a scattering device which is the size of a loaf of bread, uses the venturi effect of creating rushing air pressure to quickly, efficiently, and neatly geo target the remains to that chosen area.  The device, which dates back to the early 1900s, was invented by Charles Lindberg, and was shared with me by an 87-year-old pilot friend from Connecticut. We perfected the device and our design is patent pending and in full use (see photo at left). When the scattering is complete, we do a ceremonial dip of the wings and mark the latitude and longitude coordinates on completion certificates.  Families often want to keep those handsome parchment memorial certificates documenting the location which are suitable for archiving or framing.

Additional helpful information is on airplane choice, and for this type of mission, one we like to use is a high wing Cessna 172 for a lot of logistical reasons (see photo at right).

Important local rules and regulations to know in addition to no rivers, lakes or streams are that you cannot scatter over public land, such as beaches or sports stadiums. The fine for trespassing at these locations can be up to $10,000 if caught.  Private land is allowed with landowner permission.

The ocean is a safe and legal place to scatter when done right, and many client families tell us that they were relieved to be able to meet their loved one’s request in cases where the dying wish was to go by sea.  The energy of their loved one goes back into the ocean and then they still have a beautiful place such as the nearest lighthouse to visit and fondly remember him or her and as we say, “When you look at the water, you will always see me.”

At New England Burials At Sea, we work with both civilian and military families of all creeds and cultures, and depart from over 73 ports with over 86 vessels to choose from.

In the next installment of  the Burial At Sea series, the topic will be Full body burials at sea—how does that work?  Casket or shroud?  Is embalming allowed?  How far off-shore do you need to go?

In the meantime, check out our informative website at www.NewEnglandBurialsAtSea.com for more details, pricing, and helpful videos.

© Jessica Leigh Photography

About the Author  Capt. Brad White, Founder of New England Burials At Sea,  is a native of the South Shore, navigating its waterways for over 45 years with the last 15 years as a USCG Licensed Master Captain conducting burials at sea. You can reach Capt. Brad at 781-834-0112, or oceanburial@aol.com. Visit his website for much more information: NewEnglandBurialsAtSea.com


Published in the May 2019 edition of the South Shore Senior News