How to get buried at sea

Burials at sea are fairly uncommon in the UK, with only a few dozen being carried out each year. They’re not just reserved for sea dogs and sailors, either as anyone can take the dip. While the UK’s seas make for a very green and very DIY funeral option, there’s a number of strict regulations you ought to be aware of. 

For example, there are currently only two areas in British waters where a body can be buried (there is a third that is used only when the other two aren’t available). The locations are carefully considered and chosen based on tidal changes, currents and trawling routes. The last thing you want is to be spat out of your own grave.

So, you want to be buried at sea? 

Anyone can be buried at sea as long as the person arranging the funeral has a license. Licenses cost around £175 and are available from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO)

Applicants must provide a certificate from a doctor stating that the body is free from infection and anything else that may contaminate. In some cases, a coroner may be contacted to give the all clear.

While some funeral directors will organise a sea burial, there are organisations that specialise in maritime burial.

Where can I get buried at sea?

Although the sea is a vast and massive place. You can’t just be thrown in anywhere. There are three sites suitable for burial. They are at Newhaven in East Sussex, The Needles Spoil Ground near the Isle of Wight and near Tynemouth, Northumberland.

The Tynemouth site is only available should Newhaven and Needles Spoil not be available. Which apparently, never happens. You are welcome to propose a new site but you must be able to provide exact coordinates and evidence that the site is suitable. “That bit where we went crabbing once” doesn’t count.

The proposed site must be somewhere with minimal risk of the body being washed up on the shore or picked up by a fisherman. While It’s very rare, bodies can occasionally get washed up on the shore, which is the reason why all bodies must have tags identifying them attached.

If you’re choosing a sea burial for its green and eco-merit then it’s also important to consider travel times. Sometimes, the sites take about five hours to reach. Is the fuel spent getting to the sea and back again less damaging to the environment than that of a cremation? 

It’s quite common for families to have a ceremony on land, and then the body is taken away after they have said goodbye. This can be due to sea conditions, sea sickness or they just haven’t found their sea legs yet.

What will I need?

Contrary to popular belief, coffins are required for a sea burial. The MMO has strict guidelines on the construction and materials used in the coffin. They must be made from solid softwood and contain no plastic, lead, copper or zinc. This is to aide in the biodegradation of the coffin.

The coffin must also have a series of 50mm holes drilled into it and a 200kg weight clamped to the base. (It would be interesting to know how they found out that coffins float). Exact dimensions and further coffin information requirements can be found here 

You will need someone to pilot a boat if you aren’t licensed but you can use your own vehicle to transport the coffin if you have one. Be sure to tell the local police and give details of your planned route. They will then be able to give advice on road safety and/or restrictions. You will also need at least 4 people who can carry the coffin to and from the vehicle and on to the catafalque (the wooden table coffins are on)

With so many requirements for a sea burial, it’s worth remembering that this can all be avoided if you wish to simply scatter the ashes. You don’t need a licence, you don’t need a catafalque and you can scatter ashes wherever you want. While burials at sea do have their significance they are also a bit of a hassle. Having said that, Scottish Industrialist George Bruce makes a good point.

“All other graveyards show symbols of distinction between great and small, rich and poor: but in the ocean cemetery, the king, the clown, the prince and the peasant are alike, indistinguishable.”

George Bruce, 1884, St Andrews

For more advice and other helpful information about being buried at sea, check out this handy guidance from the UK government website. 

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