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Relatives mix loved one's ashes with artificial reef

Monday, November 8, 2004 Posted: 10:25 AM EST (1525 GMT)

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Workers prepare to lower an artificial reef into the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Sarasota, Florida.
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ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) -- Twelve-year-old Justin Pierce loved to fish and snorkel before he died in an accident on an all-terrain vehicle. Now his parents think they've found a way for their son to remain close to the water he loved.

They mixed his ashes with cement to form a hollow concrete ball that was placed in the shallow water off Sarasota in late October. The ball helps restore a critical underwater habitat while becoming a living memorial with coral and fish.

"In a way, he's still alive," said Justin's mother, Lorna.

The growing trend of alternative funeral services has led to innovative ways of memorializing the dead, from turning cremated remains into reefs and fireworks, shooting them into space, turning them into diamonds or enclosing them in keepsake jewelry.

"What is unappetizing to one person is very much appealing to another," said Jack Springer, executive director of the Chicago-based North American Cremation Association.

The trend of personalizing funeral services is driven, in part, by an increase in cremation. According to Springer, about 687,000 people were cremated in 2003 and that number is expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2025.

"It is expanding the options that are available to families," said Paul Dixon, executive director of the Funeral Ethics Association. "I do think that it appeals to a certain segment of society, but I don't know that it's for everyone."

Roberta Morris, 77, a retiree in nearby Venice, had planned to spread the ashes of her husband at sea, but then she learned about the cremation reefs.

"It's not death," she said. "It's just the most romantic thing to do with your spouse."

Her husband, Robert, was an avid fisherman until 15 years ago, when he was disabled with a brain disorder. "He would have loved this," his wife said.

The concrete reefs began as an ecological project, not a funeral service, said founder Don Brawley. He and some friends who are amateur snorkelers developed the reef balls to help restore the underwater habitat. Now more than 500,000 reef balls rest on the ocean floor off 48 countries.

In 1998, Brawley's father-in-law, Carleton Palmer, said he'd like to be cremated and have his remains mixed in one of the reef balls.

start quoteIn a way, he's still alive.end quote
-- Lorna Pierce on her son Justin.

"He said he'd rather spend eternity down there with all that life going on than stuck in a field with a bunch of dead people," Brawley said. Months later, Palmer died of cancer and Brawley complied with his wishes, making the first so-called Eternal Reef.

As Brawley told friends about his father-in-law's unique resting place, others voiced interest in doing the same. Now, the remains of snorkelers, anglers, environmentalists, and a Navy diver with his dog are entombed in the reefs.

With more than 100 of the underwater memorials, Sarasota has become the largest site for Eternal Reefs. Another 100 reefs are scattered along the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast.

Brawley said the reefs, which start at about $1,000 and are expected to last 500 years, help families work through their grief and restore the coastal habitat at no cost to the government.

Families who choose a reef memorial begin by coming to the plant in Sarasota to mix their loved ones remains in the concrete and pour it into a mold. It takes about a month for the concrete to set.

Barbara Jack, 45, of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, said the other families making reefs were "an unexpected comfort." Her 54-year-old husband, Lloyd, died while waiting for a lung transplant. Before he died he requested his remains be put in an Eternal Reef, a fitting resting place for the owner of a concrete business who loved to dive in the Caribbean.

Barbara Jack and the other families returned to Sarasota last month to say goodbye and watch the 20 reefs go into the ocean.

"It was the most wonderful experience," Barbara Jack said. "It is so reassuring that I know he is where he loved to be the most, with his fish."

Justin Pierce's father, Matthew, sobbed when his son's reef dipped below the water. He and his wife plan to get their Scuba diving certification so they can visit Justin's reef and watch it grow.

"Even if we're just standing on the shore, looking at the sunset," Lorna Pierce said, "we know he's out there."



Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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