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For Burial at Sea, You Need Not Be a Sailor
Thursday, March 21, 2002
 
PHOTO
Concrete domes such as this one are being used to create artificial reefs and, increasingly, as burial sites.
(Washington Post)
BY DON OLDENBURG
THE WASHINGTON POST


    Stephen Emery pulled himself slowly down the motorboat's anchor chain, 20 feet to the dark bottom of Florida's Sarasota Bay. Above, choppy waters had made the two-mile ride bumpy and mucked up the water, but as he touched bottom the visibility cleared some, and "there it was," he recalled.
    The anchor had hooked into a hole in a large concrete dome, one of four settled into the sand, ranging from 2 to 4 feet in diameter. Together they made an artificial reef, which was so completely covered by algae, barnacles, soft coral and small sponges that Emery couldn't find the bronze plaque he was looking for.
    The plaque bears his twin brother's name. The cremated remains of David Emery, who died at 32 when a drunk driver hit his motorcycle, are in one of those algae-covered concrete domes.
    "The growth was phenomenal," said Stephen, an environmental scientist who made his first scuba dive to visit his brother's burial site last Dec. 23. "I felt, hey, this isn't too bad. I was near where Dave is. He's part of that reef. And I felt that's where he'd want to be."
    Not long ago, people seemed satisfied to bury their dearly departed in cemetery plots or keep their ashes on the mantel. But as views of death and dying change, more people are thinking outside the box. A growing number believe alternative dispositions such as reef burials could change the face of the burial business.
    Last weekend the Cremation Association of North America's two-day seminar in Las Vegas concluded with a session called "It's Not Your Grandparents' Funeral," which included memorial paintings by a company called Eternally Yours that blend the deceased's ashes into watercolors. There were also several "green" options: Celebration Forest in Idaho will plant and care for a memorial tree, and scatter the ashes around its trunk. A "nature preserve" cemetery in South Carolina buries bodies in an ecologically sound way. And people who love the ocean can choose artificial reefs.
    "It's a niche type of thing, but the niche is growing," said Jack Springer, the association's executive director.
    For decades, cremation was the niche. But the percentage of bodies cremated went from less than 7 percent in 1975 to 25 percent in 2000 in the United States, according to the association. Despite the gross abuses discovered last month at Georgia's Tri-State Crematory, cremation rates are expected to rise steadily and top 50 percent in 25 years.
    But disposing of a loved one's ashes provides an opportunity to deal with death in a more meaningful way. George Frankel, co-founder of Eternal Reefs, the company that buried Dave Emery's ashes, said people are beginning to consider the impact their remains will have on the environment.
    Based in Decatur, Ga., Eternal Reefs is a spinoff from the Reef Ball Development Group, created in 1992 by a group of ecology-conscious diving buddies who wanted to revitalize endangered coral reefs. Hired primarily by governments, the company has sunk more than 100,000 "reef balls" in 1,500 locations worldwide to build artificial reefs.
    "Each reef ball is designed to last 500 years," Frankel said. Six inches thick and made from marine-grade, pH-neutral concrete, reef balls range from 400 to 4,000 pounds.
    Four years ago, when one partner's dying father asked to be buried in an artificial reef, Reef Balls got into the business. Eternal Reefs has "deployed" the ashes of nearly 100 people off Charleston, S.C., and Sarasota, at a cost of $850 to $3,200 each.
   
   

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