Burial at sea

From Academic Kids

Burial at Sea for two victims of a Japanese submarine attack on the US aircraft carrier Liscome Bay, November 1943
Burial at Sea for two victims of a Japanese submarine attack on the US aircraft carrier Liscome Bay, November 1943

Burial at sea describes the procedure of disposing of human remains in the ocean.

Two reasons for burial at sea are if the deceased died while at sea and it is impractical to return the remains to shore, or if the deceased died on land but a burial at sea is requested for private or cultural reasons.

In the latter case, the body might be cremated and an urn containing ashes is committed to the ocean, or the ashes are scattered on the water. Remains may also be dropped from aircraft. The ashes of a survivor of the USS Arizona (see Attack on Pearl Harbor) have been laid to rest with his crew mates in the ship by divers.

Deceased may also be buried in lakes or rivers, the most well known example being the Ganges River in India which has received the ashes of deceased Hindus for generations.

Burial at sea is unique in that the procedure cannot be reversed. While bodies buried on land can be exhumed for an autopsy, for a relocation, posthumous execution, or for illegal purposes (necrophilia, souvenir hunting, mutilation, or similar), this is usually not possible after a burial at sea.

Furthermore, while burial on land allows relatives to return to the burial site for further services, this is also difficult for burials at sea, and no memorial can be constructed at the burial location. However, it is also possible to interpret every part of the ocean being part of the grave site, and the relatives may return to any coastline or ocean for remembrance services.


United States Navy

The US Navy has done many burials at sea in its history, with wartime burials as recently as World War II, and peacetime burials still common nowadays. Most other armed forces also have burials at sea, as for example the British Royal Navy.

Peacetime burial (USA)

If the deceased died on land or has been returned to shore after death, the remains may be brought aboard either in a coffin or in an urn after cremation. The ceremony is performed while the ship is deployed, and consequently civilians are not allowed to be present. In the USA, eligible for a free Navy burial at sea are:

  • Active duty members of the uniformed services
  • Honorably discharged retirees and veterans
  • Military Sealift Command U.S. civilian marine personnel
  • Family members of the above

In preparation, the officer calls All hands bury the dead, the ship is stopped if possible, with flags on half mast, and the crew is assembled, including a firing squad, casket bearers and bugler. The crew stands at parade rest at the beginning of the ceremony. The coffin is covered with a flag, and carried feet first on deck by the casket bearers and placed on a stand, with the feet overboard. In case of cremated remains, the urn is brought on deck and put on a stand.

The ceremony is divided into a military part and a religious part. The religious part is specific to the religion of the deceased, and may be performed by a chaplain, or by the commanding officer if no chaplain of the appropriate faith is available. A scripture is read and prayers are said.

After the religious ceremony, the firing party is ordered Firing party, Present Arms. The casket bearers tilt the platform with the casket, so that the casket slides off the platform into the ocean. The flag is retained on board. In case of cremated remains, there is the option to bury the remains including the urn similar to the procedure used for caskets. Alternatively, the urn can be opened, and the remains scattered in the wind. In this case, the wind direction has to be taken under consideration before burial to ensure a smooth procedure.

The firing squad fires three volleys, the bugler plays Taps, and flowers may also be dropped into the ocean. After the flag is folded, the ceremony ends. The relatives will be informed of the time and location of the burial, and given photos and video recordings if available.

Wartime burial for deceased at sea

Burial at sea for the victims of the USS Intrepid, hit by Japanese bombs during operations in the Philliphines, November 26 1944
Burial at sea for the victims of the USS Intrepid, hit by Japanese bombs during operations in the Philliphines, November 26 1944

In wartime, attempts are made for burial at sea to follow the same procedure as in the peacetime burial at sea, although a ship on a combat mission may not have all the necessary resources available. Nowadays, it is usually possible to airlift the remains back to shore, and prepare a burial ceremony. However, as recently as World War II, deceased were buried at sea without returning to land. Due to the limited facilities of military ships, this procedure does usually not include a casket, but the body is sewn into a sailcloth with weights. Cremation is usually not possible on a ship.

Modern burial at sea procedures

Burial at sea services are available at many different locations and with many different customs, either by ship or by aircraft. Usually, either the captain (or commanding officer) of the ship or aircraft or a representative of the religion performs the ceremony. Legally, a Captain can bury remains at sea, provided that environmental regulations are satisfied. In the United States, ashes have to be scattered at least 3 miles from shore, and bodies can be given to the sea if the location is at least 600 feet (200m) deep. Special regulations may also apply to the urns and coffins. However, local laws may differ, and in the Great South Bay, New York it is legal to drop ashes right from the dock.

The ceremony may include burial in a casket, burial sewn in sailcloth, burial in an urn, or scattering of the cremated remains by ship. Burial at sea by aircraft is usually done only with cremated remains. More unusual cases of burial at sea include the mixing of the ashes with concrete and dropping the concrete block to form an artificial reef. Below is a list of religions in alphabetical order that allow burial at sea, with some details of the burial. However, there are always many different beliefs even within the same religion, and views may differ according to those beliefs.


The Anglican Church has detailed procedures for burial at sea. The ship has to be stopped, and the body has to be sewn in sailcloth, together with two cannon balls for weight.


The Catholic church prefers casket burials over cremations, but is against the scattering of the remains on the ground, in the air, or at sea. Otherwise, burial at sea in a casket or in an urn is approved. The deceased has to receive the Last Rites. The committal prayer number 406 4 is to be used.


Traditionally, the deceased is buried, and the bones and ashes are collected and sent to India for burial in the Ganges River, which in itself is a variation of a burial at sea. However, burial at sea is permitted, but needs consultation with a Hindu priest.


Islam prefers burial on land, so deep that its smell does not come out and the beasts of prey do not dig it out. However, if a person dies at sea and it is not possible to bring the body back to land in time before decay, a sea burial is allowed. A weight is tied to the feet of the body, and the body lowered into the water, preferably at a spot where it is not eaten immediately by predators. Also, if an enemy may dig up the grave to mutilate the body, it is also allowed to bury the deceased at sea to avoid mutilation. It is even stated that the expenses for burial at sea are tax deductible.


Both Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism allow burial at sea after consultation with a Rabbi, however, Orthodox Judaism forbids cremation.

Burial at sea without a body

A burial at sea ceremony may also be performed if no remains of the deceased are available. This applies for example to victims of air disasters or maritime disasters (e.g. RMS Titanic), where the remains of the deceased could not be retrieved and buried, but instead were lost in the ocean. In this case a memorial service may be held, and flowers may be dropped in the water, often over or near the location of their death. Although this may not be considered a burial in the strictest sense, it helps the grieving relatives to see it that way.

Illegal disposal of bodies in the water

As mentioned above, one main difference between a burial at sea and a burial on land is the difficulty in exhuming the body. Sometimes this difference is desired to dispose of bodies outside of the law. Of course, this is not a proper burial per se, but rather an illegal disposal of a body.

Disposal of evidence

There may be a number of reasons for this kind of crime. One common reason for this behavior is to dispose of the evidence. The body may be the victim of a homicide, as for example murder or manslaughter. In some cases, the victim may even be still alive and drown during the process. An alive victim is usually restrained to reduce the likelihood of the victim freeing themself or fighting back, and the body is often weighted to ensure the sinking of the body. The mafia is famous for disposing of victims in oceans or lakes with their feet cast in a concrete block. Other variants tie concrete blocks or other heavy objects to the victim. The Chicago-style method involves wrapping heavy chains around the victim. In Venice, barrels filled with a human body and concrete are occasionally found in the canals. It is difficult to determine if murder victims buried in a swamp are buried in water or in earth. Often, the body is also cut up to reduce the likelihood of reappearing.

In other cases, the victim may have died from an accident, and another involved party tries to destroy evidence of the accident. There are also cases where a stillborn infant is buried to dispose of evidence of infidelity, or problems with fertility.


While a corpse properly buried at sea is unlikely to reappear, many criminals are unable to ensure the permanent disposals of a body, and evidence of the body may reappear. This is rarely as spectacular as the freshly caught shark in the Sydney Coogee Aquarium that vomited up a surgically separated human arm, leading to a murder investigation. The victim was determined to be Reginald Holmes, but the three murder suspects were acquitted.

Many criminals dispose of bodies in a river, hoping that the body is carried away. However, this method will most likely lead to a quick detection of the body, because the body gets entangled at the side of the river, or stopped at a dam, or is simply seen floating by others. A disposal in large lakes or oceans is more likely to hide the body, but a decomposing body can develop a strong positive buoyancy due to the decomposing gases being trapped underneath of the skin. This may bring the body up to the surface, or at least increase the movement across the ocean floor due to wave actions. Many bodies have washed up at the shore. Bodies have also been discovered in the nets or lines of fishermen, and occasionally, bodies are also discovered by divers.

Very cold water with little oxygen may even preserve bodies, allowing for an easier identification, as for example Margaret Hogg, the Wasdale Lady in the Lake in Wast Water lake in the Wasdale area (see National Trust Properties in England). She was found after 8 years, with her body preserved like wax.

Due to the particular logistics of scattering ashes at sea there are commercial services that do so for a fee. One such service, the Neptune Society (a franchise with many branches) was charged in a class action lawsuit in California with causing emotional distress for commingling ashes, and with illegal dumping. In the 1990s a woman standing on a favorite rock on the California coast was swept out to sea and drowned by a large wave. Her son and daughter chose the same spot to scatter her ashes and were also struck by a wave, killing the son.

Selection of infamous crimes

Animal burials at sea

While burials of animals are less common, it is possible to bury an animal at sea. Similar to a human burial, this may include burying the entire cadaver, or the cremated remains, either in an urn or scattered in the wind. This service may also be available from aircrafts. Not all religions do have a special burial procedure for animals, and it is usually up to the owners to select a ceremony they think appropriate.

Famous people buried at sea

Missing image
Burial at sea at USS Enterprise

See also

External links


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