Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Burial at Sea

When it comes to the idea of “burial at sea,” I’m probably influenced more by the romanticism of the idea than anything else. My guess is that most of my readers are too. When it comes to the cold, hard facts of how someone gets buried at sea, I’m in a rather wobbly boat. So it was with great interest and fascination that I phoned Captain Johnnie Lee, the proprietor of Long Beach, California’s “Burials at Sea” service.

Queen Mary in background
Amidst the pleasure cruise docks, tourist traps, and the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, is an interesting sign on Pine Street’s Dock 5: “Burials at Sea, by Captain Johnnie Lee (310) 387-0587.” I was in Long Beach a couple weeks ago, so I went down to the docks and phoned Captain Lee. Unfortunately, he was not at his boat at the time, so I only conducted a phone interview with him. He was very forthcoming with his information, and after I told him I’d like to interview him for my Cemetery Traveler blog, he invited me to the boat the next day. Unfortunately, I was in the midst of a teaching engagement at the Convention Center and so had very limited time.

The idea of burial at sea is intriguing to me, so I had many questions about it. What you see below is as close as I can get to a transcript of our conversation. I took notes while sitting on the pier across from his boat on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, 2013.

Dock 5, Long Beach, California: location of Captain Lee's vessel
After I returned home to Philadelphia and read up on the subject, I found this excerpt from Captain Lee’s website. I’ll let it set the stage for the interview:

Capt. Lee, alongside his vessel, "The Great Faith" (ref.)
Image above and text below are from the website, “Burials at Sea by Captain Johnnie Lee:”

Scattering of ashes and a Sea Burial Ceremony is a time honored tradition. Widely accepted throughout the world, and becoming even more so considering factors such as cost, land use and environmental concerns, and acknowledged in the Book of Revelations, Chapter 20, Verse 13:
"And the Sea gave up her dead that were in it...."

Interview with Captain Johnnie Lee of “Burials at Sea”

CT: How many burials do you do?
JL: Three or four families per day on the weekend, and maybe one or two during the week. I’ve been doing this for about fifteen years. My business has grown to approximately 400 services annually.

CT: I assume we’re talking about ashes, not whole bodies?
JL: Correct. I do not do full body burials, just cremains. For full body burial, you have to go further out and you must be in at least 600 feet of water. You must also weigh the body down.

CT: How far out to sea do you go?
JL: Two to three miles – the law requires a minimum of five hundred yards.

CT: I hadn’t thought of that - there are laws and regulations …
JL: I am certified and licensed, as well as registered with the state [California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau] Cemetery Bureau.

I should note that my interview was done right off the top of my head. I called Captain Lee spur-of-the-moment, and I truly appreciate his graciousness and patience with me. So my questions kind of jumped all over the place, often being spurred in a new direction based on unexpected information imparted to me by Captain Lee.

CT: I assume your burials are somber events?
JL: Not really, it’s not sad. It’s peaceful, tranquil. The ocean helps a lot.

Image from the brochure shown above.

CT: How do you actually drop the ashes into the sea?
JL: I lower them into the ocean in a basket covered with red rose petals. When the last of the petals have floated away, I bring the basket back up.

CT: Sort of analogous to lowering a casket into the ground.
JL: Not really. It’s a scattering at sea.

CT: It seems romantic, something I don’t remember seeing anywhere on the East Coast.
JL: It’s not so much romantic – scattering at sea is part of the Asian, Indian, Hindu, and Buddhist culture, but is becoming widely accepted by all people.

CT: For others, whose religion does not dictate a water burial, it seems like there is no actual closure, no tangible memory left of the deceased – no grave to visit.
JL: The event is one of release and tranquility; each one is unique. I give each family an 8 1/2" X 11" certificate that has a seascape in the background, with their loved one's name, date the service was performed, GPS coordinates of the exact burial site, and my signature.

Image from the website "Burials at Sea by Captain Johnnie Lee"
[Captain Lee added, in a later conversation, "One of the advantages of a burial at sea service vs. the traditional, is you don't have to wait for business hours to go visit your loved ones.  Just go to the ocean, anywhere near the ocean, and you can have that closeness."]

CT: Do you get repeat business?
JL: Oh, yes many people who go out with me decide right then, that they want this type of service for themselves.

CT: Do you have any extraordinary recollections from your years of providing this service?
JL: Weather conditions. Choppy seas. On my first service, I let the surviving family member release the ashes overboard and the wind blew them back at us. Since then, I designed the basket approach.

End of Interview

I have to say that Captain Lee in no way thought this final comment humorous – he was very serious and treated the matter with the utmost respect. The honor and dignity afforded to the process and people involved by Captain Lee was quite obvious. My interview ended there with his invitation to meet me at his boat the next day. Unfortunately I could not do this.

One of the intriguing questions regarding a burial at sea service would be, “How much does it cost?” I have copied the full fee schedule from the Captain Lee's Burials at Sea website:

Fee Schedule

Witnessed Burials at Sea: $450.00 for 1 to 6 people on board when departing from Long Beach or Alamitos Bay*, $500.00 for 1 to 6 people on board when departing from Huntington Harbor. An affiliate vessel that carries up to 149 people on board is available. Please call Capt. John for pricing of this vessel. Fees are payable by Personal Check, Cash or Major Credit Card. Payments by Credit Card must be made two days before the planned departure date. Payments with Cash or Check may be made when we return to shore.

Permits: Client families are required to obtain the Burial At Sea Permit from their Mortuary, Crematory or local Department of Health, and bring it with them on the day that we depart. I will execute and file the Department of Health Permit with the appropriate agencies, with copies to my client family and Mortuary.
Non-Witnessed Burials, where I scatter the cremated remains without the family on board: $100.00 per scattering, payable upon receipt of cremated remains, and Permit.

Extended cruises and special requests may be accommodated.

* Note: An additional fee of $100.00 applies to Alamitos Bay departures only, payable directly to the Alamitos Bay Harbor Master.

Further Reading and References:

Burials at Sea by Captain Johnnie Lee website
Burial at sea, Wikipedia