Everything you need to know about sea burials

We’ll cover what a sea burial is, how you can organise one, where you can have one and why you might want one. As well as the risks and advantages of the process so you can decide what’s right for you.

A sea burial is when a boat takes a coffin out to sea and puts it into the water

This means the sea bed becomes someone’s final resting place, as a specific kind of coffin is used to make sure it sinks. The body will then break down and become part of the ocean. 

There are lots of rules on how this is done to protect ocean environments and fishing areas. Specific regulations on the coffin, like how heavy it is, makes sure it does not wash ashore. 

People can hold services out at sea on the boat, or on the beach before the boat leaves.

Anyone can have a sea burial, so long as they get a license. They are favoured by people who have been in the navy, fisherfolk and sailors but are becoming more popular in general.

From explorers to performers lots of famous people have had sea burials throughout history

In 1956 Sir Francis Drake was buried off the coast of Portobelo in Panama, South America. The famous film director Sir Alfred Hitchcock had his ashes scattered in the Pacific ocean in 1980. Janis Joplin, the american singer-songwriter, had her ashes scattered from a plane along Stinson beach in 1970.

There are three location where sea burials are usually held in England

  1. The Needles Spoil Ground. This is to the west of the Isle of Wight and three miles south of the Needles.

  2. Between Hastings and Newhaven. This is near Sussex on the South Coast. 

  3. Off Tynemouth in North Tyneside on the East Coast. 

This is because sea burials have to be where the sea is deep enough, the currents are weak and far away from fishing routes.

In the rest of the UK the rules for sea burials are different

  1. In Scotland there are two locations which meet the criteria for sea burials. These are Oban on the West Coast and John O’Groats on the Northern tip. If you want to bury someone at sea in Scotland you will need to contact their Burial, Cremation and Death Certification team on [email protected] or 01312442711.

  2. In Northern Ireland you would need to propose a location and get a licence from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. They can be contacted through [email protected] or 0300 200 7852. 

  3. In Wales you would need to propose a location and get a licence from Natural Resources Wales. They can be contacted through [email protected] or 0300 065 3000.

To bury a body at sea in these locations in England you’ll need a self-service marine licence

This costs £50 and is faster to get than a regular marine licence. When applying for a self-service marine licence you’ll need:

  1. A Death Certificate. The registry office will give you this when you register the death.

  2. A Form of Notice. Also known as Form 104. The registry office can also give you this form if you ask for it, which you then pass onto the coroner. This will give you permission to move the body out of England.  

  3. A Certificate of Freedom from Fever and Infections. This is to avoid any possibility of water borne infections. You can get this from a GP or hospital doctor. 

Once the licence is granted burials have to happen within 3 months. To apply for a self-service licence use the Marine Management Operation’s interactive assistance tool.

A funeral director will prepare a body in a specific way for burial at sea

Your funeral director should: 

  1. Not embalm the body. This stops chemicals damaging the ocean environment. 

  2. Dress the body in eco- friendly materials that biodegrade.

  3. Place a durable identification tag on the body. With details like the person's full name, date of burial and who the funeral director is.

In the future DNA sampling may be required for burials at sea

The government would use this as a dependable way of identifying a person as there is always a slight risk that bodies will wash ashore or get caught up in fishing lines. With accurate identification they can rule out an intentional sea burial as the reason a body is in the ocean.

People have to build coffins for sea burials in a certain way

The English government has specific requirements, which include:

  • The coffin not containing any plastic, lead, copper or zinc

  • Between 40 and 50 drilled holes to make sure the coffin sinks

  • Iron, steel or concrete clamped to the base of the coffin

  • The weight being distributed evenly to make sure the coffin does not turn vertical

  • Steel bands wrapped around the coffin both length and width ways

If you are considering a burial at sea make sure you go to the government's website and read through the requirements in full.

If you want a burial at sea make sure it’s written in your will or as part of your funeral plan

Making it widely known amongst your family and friends can also help. As it’s such a specific way to be buried it’s important that people know it’s really what someone wants. 

Remember that any funeral wish in your will can only be a request and is not legally binding. Having a pre-paid funeral plan can help make sure your final wishes happen as you intend them to.

Trigger warning: We’re going to go into detail about how bodies decompose at sea. If you’d rather not know you can skip ahead to the cost of sea burials.

In warmer months the process can take as little as a few days, but in colder temperatures, it can take months. The body becomes very pruney and will change colour. 

Over time the body will release gases that cause it to float, which is why the weight of the coffin is so important. The body may form adipocere, a hard grey waxy substance made from fat that is like soap. 

Eventually the skin will peel away as it absorbs water and underwater animals will begin to eat the body in the same way worms and insects would for a burial on land. 

This will be faster if the water has lots of oxygen that supports marine life, and slower if it has little or none. Eventually the body will become a part of the ocean and the bones will become part of the sand.

The cost of sea burials depends on which sea burial location, service and company you choose

The cost of the burial itself starts at £2,400 for a boat with the right equipment and licences. But can go up to £4,500 or more to include the cost of the special coffin and taking people out onto the water. 

There are a few companies you can choose from who specialise in at sea burial in England who can sort this out for you such as Burial at Sea Family Boat Services or Britannia Shipping for Burial at Sea

Other things like transporting the body from the funeral home to the chosen marina and choice of flowers will also affect the overall cost.

Sea burial companies also offer services to take loved ones’ ashes out to sea to scatter

These services are often a lot more affordable than a full burial and start at around £900 for a boat. You don’t need a licence or any kind of legal approval to scatter ashes, but if it’s within five miles of the coast there are a few guidelines from the environmental agency. These include:

  • Not scattering any non-biodegradable items such as plastic wreaths or trinkets.

  • Scattering ashes far away from buildings or places where people swim or fish.

  • Scattering the ashes close to the surface of the water. This helps stop the wind from carrying the ashes to other areas. 

You can also scatter ashes from the beach itself which is completely free and avoids sea sickness, but make sure you check the guidelines at where can you scatter ashes.

We can help you arrange a direct cremation if you want to organise your own ash scattering at sea

Everything can be handled online or over the phone, then we'll take care of the rest.

Before choosing a sea burial think about the role of the weather and the risks involved

On the day of the burial the boat’s captain decides if the weather is suitable. 

If it isn’t, you may not be able to go on the boat with the crew and may have to say goodbye to your loved one on the beach before the boat sets off. The captain and crew will then carry out the burial in accordance with your wishes. 

If the weather is really bad the burial may have to be delayed. Most companies have contracts that mean you are financially responsible for extra fees if something like this happens.

These contracts cover any circumstances that are beyond the company's control. So if the burial is delayed you may have to pay extra. 

It is also worth thinking about the small risk of the body not settling on the sea bed and somehow being washed ashore. This risk is low, so long as the specific regulations on the type of coffin and burial location are followed. 

Some people might not worry about this small possibility, whereas others may find the idea too upsetting to consider.

Sea burial services often have specific emotional touches

These include scattering petals and flowers over the water once the coffin has been lowered. Classical music associated with the sea such as Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture or Debussy’s La Mer can also be particularly beautiful.

Listening to poetry associated with the sea, such as The Full Sea Rolls and Thunders by William Ernest Henley or Alone I Will Not Be Captain Chad Theesfeld, on the water can be an important moment in saying goodbye.

A sea burial is a unique and meaningful way to be buried

If you or a loved one has made it clear they want this for a burial it is still completely legal and doable in the UK. It can bring people a lot of comfort to know they are carrying out their loved ones last wishes exactly how they imagined them.

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