When you think of a burial, you probably picture a traditional burial in a cemetery with a casket, grave marker, and graveside service. Most would be surprised to hear about a burial at sea, as only 2,544 people were reported to be buried at sea in 2020. While this may sound like a plausible alternative to overcrowded cemeteries, is it even legal to have a burial at sea in the USA?
Burials at sea are legal in the USA as long as the body is disposed of at least three nautical miles from the coast in waters at least 600 feet deep. You must also report a burial at sea to the Environmental Protection Agency within thirty days of the disposal.
In the rest of this article, I’ll answer your questions about burials at sea, their legality, how they work, and the costs. If you or a loved one are curious about this method of body disposition, keep reading!
Are Burials at Sea Legal?
You are legally allowed to have a burial at sea in the United States under specific conditions. The Environmental Protection Agency issues a permit that authorizes burial at sea under the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act.
Many people think burial at sea is only for those with a connection with maritime life or employment, such as sailors or Navy veterans. However, anyone can be buried at sea. The general permit allows someone to bury a body at sea under the following conditions:
- The body must be disposed of at least three nautical miles from land.
- In general, the body must be disposed of in waters at least 600 feet deep, but some areas, such as the Dry Tortugas, require the body to be dumped in deeper water.
- Cremated remains can be buried in any ocean water depth as long as it is three nautical miles away from the coast.
- The burial has to be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using the Burial at Sea Reporting System within thirty days of the burial.
Here are some things you should know:
- You are not allowed to bury a body at sea within three nautical miles under any circumstances, even if the body is cremated.
- You cannot bury any non-human bodies at sea (such as pets).
- Materials that are not decomposable in a marine environment are not allowed to be buried with the body.
- You do not have to give prior notice to the EPA before a burial at sea, but you have to notify them afterward within thirty days using the reporting system.
- You cannot mix human remains with non-human remains and bury them at sea (such as mixing the ashes of a pet with the ashes of a cremated person).
- You can use any kind of boat for the service as long as you are authorized.
- You cannot use an expendable device to send remains over the ocean.
- You can bury remains in a container, but it cannot contain any plastic.
- The MPRSA applies to ocean waters only; inland water burials are up to individual state discretion.
As long as you abide by the above rules and regulations, burial at sea is legal.
How To Have a Burial at Sea
If you decide to have your loved one buried at sea, it can be helpful to know in advance what to expect. If your loved one was a member of the Navy, you could request a naval burial at sea by providing the following to the Navy and Marine Corps Mortuary Affairs Office:
- Copy of the death certificate.
- Proof of service, which can be a DD214 or a discharge certificate.
- Burial at sea request form.
These naval burials occur on a deployed ship, so family and friends cannot attend the ceremony. The departed will get proper burial honors. The commanding officer usually sends a letter to the family with all the ceremony details, including when and where the body was released into the ocean.
If the departed is not a member or former member of the Navy, the process is different. Most people choose to charter a boat through an official burial at sea provider, which ensures that you’re following all of the EPA’s rules.
One benefit of going through an official burial at sea provider is that you get the freedom to choose what size boat you want. A small, intimate boat is perfect if you want the ceremony to be a more private affair for family only. If you want to invite lots of friends and loved ones, you can choose a larger boat to accommodate everyone.
Once you have the boat, you and the provider decide on a specific day, time, and location to dispose of the body, keeping the above rules in mind. The provider won’t allow you to select a place that doesn’t follow the rules, so you’ll be at least three nautical miles away from shore and at least 600 feet deep.
If additional laws are required in your state, an official provider will also be aware of these and help you abide by these rules. For example, to scatter ashes off the coast of California, you must obtain a Cremated Remains Disposer License through the California Department of Consumer Affairs.
If you are burying a full body at sea (instead of scattering ashes of a cremated body), you need to put the body in a biodegradable casket or shroud. This ensures that there’s as little damage to the environment as possible. Usually, a funeral director is present on the vessel to oversee the body until its disposal.
If you are scattering ashes at sea, a funeral director doesn’t need to be present, and the service on board can be completely private. You can place flowers in the water with the body, but not anything that could damage the ecosystem.
Ideally, the body should not be embalmed before a burial at sea. In some cases, embalming is unavoidable, but the chemicals in this process can damage the marine ecosystem. However, because the ocean is so big, dilution will help reduce the negative impact of formaldehyde on marine life.
For more information on burial versus cremation, you can read my article on deciding which method is best for you.
After the burial, the family has thirty days to report the burial to the EPA. You’ll need to provide the following information:
- Contact information for whoever made the arrangements, whether that be a funeral director or a family member.
- Contact information for whoever is responsible for the boat that was used for the ceremony.
- The name of the deceased.
- The date the burial occurred.
- The location of the burial occurred in coordinates.
Usually, the boat captain will circle the area of the body’s disposal a few times to allow family members to say goodbye.
Some families choose to have a funeral reception shortly after the burial at a nearby location. If you’d like to have a reception, I have a step-by-step guide you can use to guide your planning.
How Much Does a Burial at Sea Cost?
The cost of a burial at sea varies widely depending on what services you include, the company you work with, and if the ceremony is attended or unattended.
Full-body burials at sea are the most expensive option, with the cost ranging from as little as $500 to $5,000 or more, depending on the size of the boat you need, the amount of time you want to spend on the boat, and what services you wish to include. You’ll also need to consider if you’d like to bring religious personnel on board for the service, which comes at an additional cost.
Usually, the quoted price with a burial at sea provider includes the use of the boat, fuel, the captain, burial certificates, and the filing with the EPA. Here are some other costs you should consider if you’re budgeting for a full-body sea burial:
- Urn, casket, or shroud
These costs can add up quickly, especially if you choose a more expensive urn or casket. Keep in mind that these containers should be biodegradable.
The Living Urn Eco Water Urn from Amazon.com is a great option for an urn. This urn is designed to float like a buoy while the bottom part dissolves and releases the ashes into the water. This allows you to say your goodbyes with the urn still visible as the ashes scatter into the water. It is large enough to contain all of the ashes of an adult body.
If your loved one was cremated, the burial wouldn’t be a full-body burial at sea but a scattering of the ashes. You can choose to have the scattering be attended or unattended.
An unattended scattering doesn’t allow any family or friends on the boat. Instead, a captain takes their boat out to sea and scatters the ashes alone. Usually, the captain will do some sort of reading before the scattering, and mourners can watch from shore. This is the most affordable burial at sea option, typically costing $100-$300. It’s also great for families who experience seasickness or aren’t comfortable being on a boat.
An attended scattering allows mourners to be present on the boat for the scattering. This cost varies widely, from $200 to $5,000 or more for a larger cruise with many attendees.
Pros and Cons of Burial at Sea
As with any disposition method, there are advantages and disadvantages to having a loved one buried at sea. Let’s look at some, so you are well informed before making this difficult decision.
- A sea burial can be more environmentally friendly than other options. If the body is not embalmed and is contained in a biodegradable container or shroud, a sea burial won’t cause as much damage to the environment as a traditional burial. The body will naturally decompose in the water and become part of the marine ecosystem instead of taking up precious space on land.
- Burial at sea can be more affordable than a traditional burial. The costs associated with any kind of burial vary greatly depending on what services and extras you choose, such as the length of the ceremony, the type of flowers, etc. However, the average cost of a sea burial is less than that of a traditional burial.
- A burial at sea may be more meaningful to the departed. If the departed loved the ocean or had a maritime career, they may find it comforting to be returned to an environment they loved instead of being buried in the ground.
- Mourners won’t have a physical plot they can visit. Some mourners find a lot of comfort in visiting the gravesite of their loved one, and with a burial at sea, you don’t get a physical place you can visit to mourn. However, you may find comfort whenever you look at the ocean.
- Some religions don’t allow burials at sea. Depending on your loved one’s religious beliefs, burial at sea may or may not be encouraged. For example, traditional Catholics only support traditional burials.
- The service might have to be smaller. The more people you wish to include at a burial at sea service, the more expensive it will be because you’ll have to pay for a larger ship and more fuel. Therefore, if you choose to have a burial at sea, you might not be able to invite everyone who knew your loved one. However, you can always have a reception at a later date that can be as big as you want it to be.
Ultimately, whether or not a burial at sea is right for you and your loved one depends on their beliefs, wishes, and budget.
As long as you follow the rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency, burials at sea are legal in the United States. They are a viable disposal option for people whose departed loved one had an affinity for water or some connection to maritime life. There are pros and cons to this method of burial, as there are pros and cons to any form of disposition, but it may be the best choice for you, your departed loved one, and your family.