Friday, May 25, 2012

Burial at Sea

There are many ways to dispose of human remains.  In the United States, we tend to prefer burial.  In England, cremation is the first choice.  In Tibet,  sky burial is favored.  But now that ‘green burials,’ (those that are more in tune with nature) are catching on again, burial at sea is becoming more popular.

Burial at sea is accomplished by taking the deceased’s body, or their cremains, out on the ocean and dropping them over the edge of a boat into the water. Burials at sea have occurred since ancient times.  

Viking Ship
The Vikings would place a body on board a ship and set it on fire as a way to help the deceased get to Valhalla.

Egyptian Raft
Throughout the islands of the South Pacific, the dead were placed in canoes and launched into the sea.

The ancient Egyptians placed their dead on papyrus rafts and floated them off to sea.

Military Services
Military navies around the world have practiced sea burials for hundreds of years.  From the fifteenth century to WW II, sailors have committed their own to the sea.  Superstition had it that a sailor not buried at sea would become restless and haunt the place where he died.

Davy Jones Locker
If a ship capsized and life was lost, sailors would refer to those who had drowned as having been sent to Davy Jones Locker.  The origin of the saying is not known, but it was first reported in Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts published in London in 1726.  During the nineteenth century, the phrase became popular among sailors.

Burial at sea is not a complicated process, but rules and regulations must be followed.  In the U.S., a body must be taken at least 3 nautical miles away from the coastline and dropped in water at least 600 feet deep.  There are some areas that require the water to be 1800 feet deep.  The remains must be prepared in a manner so that they will sink quickly and permanently.   
Casket for Sea Burial

If using a casket, it must be weighed down with one hundred pounds of weight, and have twelve 6 inch holes drilled into the lid and bottom of the casket, in order to allow the water in to aid in the sinking. Five metal bands must also be wrapped around the casket.

Sea Shroud
New England Burials at Sea,
offers full body burials at sea.  The body is placed in a shroud that is weighted down with cannon balls.  The shroud will decompose over time and the cannon balls help to form a reef, keeping everything natural. 

All sea burials must be reported to the EPA.  A Burial at Sea form must be completed. It will require the name of the deceased, port of departure, name of vessel, longitude and latitude of the drop, and if the remains were cremains or a body.  For more information visit

Lighthouse Urn
Shell Urn
Almost 90% of human remains taken out to sea for burial are cremains, the remainder of the cremation process.  They may be taken out three miles from the coast and scattered on the water or dropped into the ocean in an urn. The urn may be watertight or one that will dissolve with time. 

Man-made Reef Urn
Neptune Memorial Reef
Urns may also be part of a reef that attracts sea life.  The Neptune Memorial Reef is the largest man-made reef ever built.  It is located just over 3 miles east of Key Biscayne, Miami, Florida and attracts sea life and scuba divers.

Religious beliefs can influence whether someone may be buried at sea.  Traditional Orthodox Judaism prohibits burial at sea.  Reform Judaism may allow a burial at sea after consultation with a Rabbi, but burial is still preferred.

The Roman Catholic Church will approve burial at sea in a casket or urn when the deceased has died at sea.

Buddhism specifies that the body should be cremated, placed in an urn and buried or put in a columbarium.  However, a ceremony has been developed for Buddhist military personnel who must be buried at sea.

Hinduism requires the deceased to be cremated and the ashes placed in the Ganges River.  But burial at sea can be approved after discussion with a Hindu priest.

Islam calls for the body to be buried deep into the ground.  However, if the person died at sea and decay could be a problem, a sea burial is allowed.  Also, if enemies might dig up the body to mutilate it, a sea burial is acceptable, as in the case of Osama bin Laden.

The cost of a burial at sea is quite inexpensive when compared to a traditional burial in the United States.  Depending on the company, some vessels will charge a nominal fee ($50 to $100) to carry ashes out to sea and scatter them.  Others will take the family out to sea where a service can be held and the remains dropped over the edge of the ship or boat.  Prices vary, but the smaller the boat, the less the expense.

Many well-known people have been buried at sea including;

John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Alfred Hitchcock
H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946)
Janis Joplin (1943 – 1970)
Alfred Hitchcock (1899 – 1980)
Rock Hudson (1925 – 1985)
Vincent Price (1911 – 1993)
Gene Kelly (1912 – 1996) 
John Kennedy Jr. (1960 – 1999)
Dick Clark         (1929 – 2012)

Those who request burial at sea usually have a deep affinity for the ocean, whether from working on it, being near it, or just loving to look at it.  Many people find a sea burial to be a serene and unobtrusive way to sail off into the sunset.

I Must Down to the Seas Again, the Lonely Sea and the Sky

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
         ~ John Masefield, Poet Laureate (1878 - 1967)

~ Joy

Friday, May 18, 2012

Faces From the Past - Ceramic Memorial Plaques


They go by many names – those faces from the past.  Ceramic pictures, photo porcelain plaques, memorial portraitures, even postmortem portraits.  They first began appearing on gravestones in the U.S. back at the turn of the century.  What began as a oval porcelain tablet with an image transferred on to it has changed and been refined over the years into modern day ceramic memorial plaques that are weather and fade resistant.

In 1854 two French photographers, Bulot and Cattin, patented a process to adhere a photographic image to porcelain or enamel by firing it in a kiln. The original ceramic pictures were done in black and white and then mounted on gravestones.  The process caught on throughout Eastern and Southern Europe, and Latin America.

For the first time, ceramic pictures made it easy and affordable for the graves of the working class to be personalized with a likeness of the deceased. Before this only the wealthy had sculptures, busts, and carvings done in their likenesses on their tombs.

In 1893, the J.A. Dedouch Company began in Oak Park, Illinois.  They quickly became one of the most popular companies that manufactured ceramic tombstone pictures.  In 2004, Dedouch was sold to the Canadian company, PSM.  After one hundred eleven years in business, J.A. Dedouch was also the oldest company to have crafted these memorial portraits.

By the turn of the century this type of personalization was becoming very popular and available around the world.  The 1929 Montgomery Wards & Company Monuments catalog sold ceramic pictures for gravestones and described them as eternal portraits that “endow the resting place of the dead with a living personality.”  Priced from $6.50 to $13.50, they were available in an oval, round, or rectangular shape and came in three different sizes.

Today, ceramic pictures come in a variety of sizes and shapes including the traditional oval, rectangular, and round shapes along with
heart shaped images.  The pictures are now done mainly in color, although black and white, and sepia tones are still available.  The pictures are digitized, placed on porcelain shapes, and then baked at 1600 degrees so the image will not fade.  A 3 x 4 oval will run around $300.  Ceramic pictures can also be mounted on mausoleum doors, benches, cremation urns, and columbariums.

Ceramic memorial pictures give us the opportunity to glimpse back into history. As the old adage goes, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” and these ceramic memorial plaques allow us one more chance to look into the eyes of this long-ago past and identify personally with someone who lived in it.

~ Joy

Friday, May 11, 2012

Discover America’s Hidden (Cemetery) Gems During National Preservation Month

 May is National Preservation Month and this year’s theme is Discover America’s Hidden Gems.  What a perfect time to explore our historic cemeteries, and to help find ways to preserve our unused, forgotten, and damaged cemeteries.

National Preservation Month began in 1971 to call attention to grassroots preservation efforts around the country.  In 2005, May was officially designated as National Preservation Month and is now observed throughout the United States.

Up-rooted Stones
Forgotten Cemetery
There are many cemeteries across this country (and the world,) in desperate need of preservation.  Cemetery preservation can include anything from documenting a cemetery, to gaining national or historic designations as landmarks or historical places, to resetting and repairing headstones, restoring buildings or mausoleums, mending fences, even notifying officials of the location of an abandoned cemetery, or contacting and gaining legal assistance in order to take back a cemetery that is being misused or destroyed.

Preserving a cemetery takes money, man-hours, an understanding of what needs to be done and the best way to accomplish these goals.  Most states offer free preservation workshops, and a cemetery preservation guide, usually available from the state’s historical preservation agency.  But even armed with this knowledge, a preservation or restoration group should still seek out a professional in the field for a consultation and/or assistance.

Loosing a Stone
Unattended Cemetery
Many of the cemeteries in need of some type of preservation are small, 10 acres or less.  These sites are usually privately owned, or owned by a small village or town that can no longer afford their upkeep or repairs.  This is where volunteers are the life-blood of preservation, but we must do it in the most acceptable and least damaging manner possible.

An attempt at Repair
Shattered name
There are varying levels of skills are needed to perform cemetery preservation.  Some preservation work may require attending a workshop and following a training manual if you’re, say, resetting a stone.  Others require trained professionals with experience to become involved.  And the hardest repairs and preservation methods call for professionals to be hired.

Set in concrete
Pieced together
Repairing historic grave markers properly is very difficult.  Most repairs are complicated and a professional is required.  This is not a time to skimp on the money needed or correct supplies required for the repairs.  Although the stones shown here have been ‘fixed’, they were not repaired in the correct manner and have compromised the original headstone.  Repairs made by using a material that is harder than the original gravestone will cause tension on the stone that can lead to new breaks and cracks.

Fallen wall
Broken fence
Cemetery fences, family plot dividers and mausoleum walls can all be found in need of repairs.  Again, it is best to locate an expert in order to maintain the original look and integrity of the site.  Historic preservation groups are great sources to help you in locating qualified assistance.

Human Skeletal Remains Act
If you know of a cemetery in need of preservation, contact your state’s historic preservation agency.  If you have discovered a cemetery that is being vandalized, excavated or destroyed, get in touch with your local Cemetery Department or Commission, or contact the Parks Department.  If all else fails, contact a state legislator, or the Office of Comptroller for guidance. The State of Illinois enacted a Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act (HSRPA) in 1989 to stop such desecration. Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act (20 ILCS 3440; 17 IAC 4170)   Check to see if your state has a similar law.

For more information on cemetery preservation, visit:
The Association for Gravestone Studies, (AGS)
Founded in 1977, AGS is an international organization that offers publications, conferences and workshops about the historical significance of grave markers.

National Preservation Institute, (NPI)
The NPI was founded in 1980 and offers education and professional training for those involved in the preservation, management and stewardship of cultural heritage.

The National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, (NCPTT)
The NCPTT applies science and technology to historic preservation through the areas of architecture, archeology, materials conservation, and landscape architecture.

Pioneer Cemetery
It is our responsibility, as citizens, historians, and genealogists, to assist in the preservation of cemeteries.  These ’Gateways to the Past’ provide us with amazing cultural resources, a wealth of historical assets, and valued public landscapes.  They are worth protecting and preserving for future generations!

~ Joy