Friday, August 28, 2015

The "White Light" and the Atlantis Society

I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of burial at sea – the ocean as your final destination. The act has many romantic and historical connotations. Every once in a while the “Cemetery Traveler” in me will investigate such a service. Apparently, they exist along the east and west coasts of the United States. One such burial at sea operation is The Atlantis Society, on Lido Island of Newport Beach, California.

Atlantis, the (presumed) mythical “lost continent” that sunk into the sea, is presumably where the Atlantis Society got its name. The name itself conjures up Western Society’s profound fascination with the “lost civilization,” the powerful and advanced kingdom that sank, supposedly, into the ocean over the course of a night and a day, around 9,600 B.C. (ref.)

Newport Beach, California, as seen from across the bay on Lido Isle
I was in Newport Beach this past summer and decided to pay a visit to the “White Light,” the yacht used by the Atlantis Society for ocean burials. “White Light,” of course, is a perfect name for the ship that takes you on your final voyage. People who have had near-death experiences sometimes describe seeing a white light and feeling profound calm, which we assume is God, or heaven, or whatever you believe is supposed to greet you in the afterlife. So whatever you believe the “white light” to be – the Heavenly Presence or a neurological REM intrusion (a sensory mix-up as the brain wakes up) – you must admit that it’s a great name for a boat.

White Light, the boat, is typically docked at the far end of the pier at the Lido Village Marina. Lido is a small island off the shore of Newport Beach. To get there you simply drive through the astounding wealth that is Newport Beach – south on Newport Blvd. (California 55 Freeway), to the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Cross the PCH (California 1) and turn left at Via Lido (first light across the bridge). You’re now on the tiny island of Lido.

If you know the catchy 1976 Boz Scaggs song, “Lido Shuffle” (here’s a link to it), it will be going through your head as you drive past the palm trees and surfers on the bay. The song, by the way, has nothing to do with Lido Island. However, the lyrics totally describe this extremely affluent area of southern California:

"Lido, oh, oh, oh
He's for the money, he's for the show ..."

I drove across the bridge and made a left onto Via Lido, as the Atlantis Society’s website instructs me to do, then I made a quick left into the public parking structure. The stores and shops along the dock were under construction during my visit, so it was a bit of a challenge finding my way to the bay side where the marina is. Once there, you walk about a city block’s distance to the end of the dock where the “White Light” sign is hung. From a bit away, I saw a fellow hunched down on the deck of a yacht doing some work, and thought this might be the vessel in question.

The "White Light" from the Atlantis Society website

"White Light is a 67 foot LOA Chris Craft Commander, coast guard licensed and certified to carry up to 49 passengers to sea. Roomy, tastefully appointed and fully stabilized, White Light provides the perfect platform for your memorial service. Alcohol can be available upon request as we have a fully licensed and stocked bar." - Atlantis Society website

Unfortunately, the yacht I saw being worked on was the one in the slip NEXT to the empty slip where the White Light should have been. Perhaps it was out performing a burial service. (Burial at sea, as you can see from the AtlantisSociety website, is specifically the “scattering of ashes at sea,” not a full body burial.) I called the phone number on the sign with my cell phone and the gentleman at the other end of the line confirmed my suspicion – the captain had the ship out at sea performing a burial. He would not be back for two hours.

The Service:
"Families choosing to witness the scattering of ashes service will board the vessel at our dock in either Southern California or Washington state. From the berth, the yacht will proceed to a pre-established latitude and longitude."

"Once at that destination, a service is conducted by the Captain or Chaplain as requested followed by a flower toss and our Circle of Tribute. The vessel then cruises back to the dock.
Included in our service are coffee sodas and juices as well as roses for all the guests. Included, upon request, a commemorative certificate which includes the date and location of the final resting place will be mailed to the family." - Atlantis Society website

Should I come back in two hours to see the White Light? Who would disembark? How long would that take? Would that be too voyeuristic on my part? I decided not to wait but rather imagined myself a mourner seated on the “White Light” bench waiting to set out on that last voyage. I wondered what the neighboring yacht owners thought about this – was it like having a cemetery next to your house? The sun was shining, eighty degrees and no humidity - a beautiful day. A young boy was paddling a surfboard across the bay. Calm. I wondered if the mourners on the White Light were dressed in black? How could they even be sad in southern California?

A few years ago I visited with a man who does burials at sea (see link to my blog, "Burials at Sea") and was told that he does not go out to perform the service when the seas are not calm. I imagined all sorts of reasons why, such as safety and comfort to the passengers. What I did not realize until my visit to the Lido Village marina, was that a calm sea in the sunshine is more likely to result in a happy fond farewell. Scattering ashes of the departed by loved ones aboard the White Light should be a focused event, a ritual of closure, maybe even a celebration of life, unmarked by distracting rough seas or bad weather.

The Cost:
Every once in a while one of my Cemetery Travels doesn’t quite end up where I expected. This one ended up mostly in my imagination. Except for the fact that after my return to Philadelphia, I inquired about the price for a burial at sea, performed by the Atlantis Society. For up to six guests the fee is $850.00 and for over six and up to forty-nine the price goes to $985.00. Both are a two-hour service with beverages, roses and a small memorial service.

As I left the dock I walked past a small book shop called Lido Village Books beneath the parking garage. I cannot resist a book shop, especially a non-corporate, non-chainstore operation. Had a nice chat with the proprietor and bought a copy of Stephen King’s autobiographical book, On Writing. King most certainly has thought about the white light and near-death experiences. Regardless, one must admit that “White Light” is a great name for the boat that takes you on your final voyage!

References and Further Reading:
Atlantis Society’s website
Discovery video on seeing "white light" in a near death experience
Things to do on Lido Isle
"Burials at Sea"  Cemetery Traveler blog posting