Stories of Burials at Sea from Sailboats I’ve Captained for the Ceremony

This is a collection of tales from burials at sea when I’ve been captain of various sailboats for the ceremony. Burial at sea is legal as long as you travel over three nautical miles offshore and fill out the appropriate paperwork after the trip. You can read more about the process at How To Perform a Legal Burial at Sea // Saying Goodbye to Your Loved Ones by Boat or Plane.

Burial at Sea, Stories of Burials at Sea from Sailboats I’ve Captained for the Ceremony

Chilly Cigar and Brandy Farewell

One of the first burials at sea I ever conducted was on a blustery winter day, and the family arrived in dresses, blazers, and the ladies wearing heels. They wanted to drop their dearly beloved at the sea buoy. We took our largest boat, Monkey’s Uncle, with center cockpit and full bimini and dodger.

We got about halfway out. Waves crashing over the bow… salt spray everywhere. Plus, it was freezing cold. I decided to tell them to begin the ceremony since we were nearly at the sea buoy, with an outgoing tide.

They pulled out the ashes, cigars, and brandy. After the cigars were lit, and the best of the brandy tested and tasted, they read a poem. A long poem, as the ladies’ hairdos wilted further.

The cardboard box was brought out, twisty tie undone, and plastic baggie readied. Another cigar was lit, a sunfter of brandy filled, and over the side went brother, cigar, and brandy.

We headed back in through the inlet, to the marina. With the following seas and winds, the trip back was warmer, drier, and everyone was much happier. The mourners finished off the rest of the brandy on the return, likely adding to their warmth.

Burial at Sea, Stories of Burials at Sea from Sailboats I’ve Captained for the Ceremony

Fiery Viking Sendoff

Six relatives arrived for a burial at sea. I knew they had a box of ashes. A. One. Single soul. That’s all they told “the office.”

When they arrived, we took our 30 foot Catalina, Fantasea, now Henry Baker’s boat and still operating out of our marina. Until he refurbished it, actually, I always thought the burgundy interior with gold buttons looked rather like the inside of a casket.

We headed offshore, and they unpacked their supplies.

As we headed offshore, they admitted to me that they actually were putting to rest three – not one – of their family. They said they thought we would not agree if we knew it was three, so they had not mentioned the other two souls on board.

One died in 1955, the other around 1986, and the final one about a year earlier than our sail. The passengers were nieces, nephews, sisters, brothers, and grandchildren.

So, I got everyone on board – “Don’t let that box lie on it’s side; it’s not taped securely” – and gave the safety speech. Life jackets, flares, radio… The nephew from Guam videotaped the whole thing. Boy, did I feel uncomfortable giving the safety speech to three dead people. I usually say something like “If today’s the day I decide to end it all and you look back and there’s no one at the helm, just push this button and call for help…” Just didn’t seem appropriate, so I had to skip that part of the safety speech and just say “There’s the radio for calling other ships…” 

On the galley counter, the three metal boxes were placed. Three ammo boxes. We marveled at the weight of a set of human ashes, wondered at the difference in weights of the three boxes of ashes – maybe a newer incinerator system?

I didn’t mind. All the same to me. Anyway, we got underway, and headed offshore to the sea buoy, which is a very crowded final resting place; we all know there are plenty of souls out there already. Strangers, too.

They explained that the three brothers had been great friends, and they wanted to be buried together. They had been holding on to the one’s ashes 23 years, the second’s ashes 11 years, and now the final departure had occurred.

Once we arrived offshore, and it was a very pretty almost sunset time, they brought out three handmade punts; small wooden boats with very flat bottoms.

They spread everything out on the galley counter and began to divvy up the ashes; some of each in each of the three wooden punts. 

They wanted everyone to see the ashes, so I peeked too. The “oldest” was in a metal box; an ammo box. There wasn’t much in there, but what was there was pretty big. I’m telling you, I recognized some of that stuff from anatomy and physiology class. 

The next relative was in a similar box, but plastic. More pulverized, too. 

The third was in a cardboard box, in a plastic baggie with a twist tie. In black marker across the box it said “Dad.” So in the end, it comes to this, I thought. Don’t want to get mixed up in the closet with the Christmas ornaments or anything. I remember when Mom thought she accidentally threw Grandmother out with the wood stove ashes. We found her…

Well, there was too much ash for the boats – big guys, they said – so the remainder went overboard along with plenty of shots of whiskey; shot glasses and all. Downwind, of course. I also noticed the bottle of whiskey was surreptitiously emptied by the time we returned to the marina.

In the middle of the punts, there was a well with oil and a wick. The wicks were lit, and all three punts had a cross erected on board. They were put overboard, and the gentle waves carried them out to sea under our watchful eyes.

Well, they had brought a floral wreath to lay in the water and planned to put all three punts into it. Upon closer inspection, I found that the wreath was not entirely biodegradable; I could excuse the silk flowers, maybe, but the plastic branches… Well… I made a decision that so much trash goes overboard accidentally from ships, and at the sea bouy in confused seas with three souls who needed to be put to rest plus six family members and one video camera rolling was not the time to mention the three-mile dumping zone and possible $5,000 fine… Took my chances there. So, overboard it went. I promise to pick up an equal amount of plastic garbage this Summer to make up for it, Ok? The punts would not stay in the wreath for anything. Lively suckers. Kept bobbing out.

Finally had to launch each boat separately. To make it more official, the nieces lit each of the boats on fire after soaking them, the ashes, the galley, the cockpit, and the cockpit cushions with kerosene. Oh, boy. Cigarette, anyone? The wooden cross in one of the punts caught on fire.

The three boats bobbing off ablaze into the sunset was rather touching, but there was no official speech or words said; one niece said they’d waited so long that there was nothing left to say. Wonder what the third man would have thought about that statement. Sorry to hold everyone up?

I didn’t have to tell any tales about the outgoing tide – it was really gushing out by this time.

We watched for a bit, then turned and headed in toward shore. We could see the flickering lights gently heading out to sea until they finally burnt and sank. It was very pleasant, reassuring, calm and pretty, but sad at the same time.

We got back to the marina, docked the boat, and I stepped down on the dock to give everyone a hand off. I glanced down at the hull. Aaaagh! Yup. Covered with ashes. I gave everyone a hand and just prayed no one else looked down. No one did. Shew! When they were gone, I washed the last dust of Uncle Jim, Uncle Bill, and Grampy into Camachee Cove. Or so I thought.

The next morning, my sailing school students all wanted to know how the funeral went. I told them it was three funerals, and hit the high points while the woman in the class was stowing everyone’s’ lunches in the ice box and the guys were uncovering the sail.

We heard a shriek and looked down the companionway to see what was going on. Bones. Ashes. Chunky white stuff. Remnants from the funerals had spilled out on the counter where she had set our sandwiches while she was putting the ice in the cooler. Sorry. Sorry. Washed that down the galley basin pronto. So sorry everyone.

Well you know, I’ve always said passengers just love to be involved in the action, to feel included and part of the boating community. I also know they had learned something the day before because they asked me if I had gone three miles offshore and if the ashes and bones would have fit through a 1″ sieve…

Burial at Sea, Stories of Burials at Sea from Sailboats I’ve Captained for the Ceremony

Shark Three Time Salute

One very emotional burial at sea was for a young man who left behind a young wife and two young teenage sons. The three of them alone came on Stimulus, our 36’ Hunter. She was a brand new boat, and had a chart plotter at the helm.

I thought it would be nice to give them coordinates afterward of where they left their father. I usually did this with a handheld gps, but now I could see on the chart exactly where we were.

They headed toward the bow with a wooden box, and the young woman told me her husband had died of a very aggressive cancer. She said they had not had much time to prepare themselves; he was gone in a month. You could tell the sons were still in disbelief.

She told me they were each going to put a portion of the ashes overboard, and was it ok to head up to the bow? Of course. As they each spoke a piece that they could barely choke out, they sobbed, and each put a portion of the ashes overboard.

When the first cloud of ashes hit the water and spead out, they looked like a cloud in the water. Like when you see rain running off a limestone driveway. I suppose anything different in the water creates excitement, and as I leaned back toward the helm to mark the spot on the gps as we passed the cloud of ashes, an enormous shark circled around and slowly, slowly perused the perimeter of the ash cloud.

The shark had to be about six feet long; it was just off the transom, and was as long as the boat was wide; I had a really good perspective measure right at hand. I marked the spot, the trio at the bow continued without noticing.

They put over the second and the third releases, and I marked each one. The shark carefully, deliberately, circled each cloud. I wondered over the significance, what lured that majestic wild animal to pay tribute three times. Was it the weight of the three grieving souls on board? Or simply a prehistoric habit to circle areas of varying temperature and visibility?

At the end of the sail, when we returned to the dock, I presented them with a handwritten note with all three gps lat/lon positions. It was before the age of the cellular telephone, and gps chart plotters were rather new, so having latitude and longitude of a position was a relatively new thing for non-boaters.

I never mentioned the shark. I just wasn’t sure if they would be thrilled or horrified at their husband and father’s first welcome from the deep.

Burial at Sea, Stories of Burials at Sea from Sailboats I’ve Captained for the Ceremony

She Loved Walking on the Shore

Quite unusual, late one evening I received a text on the Facebook Messenger application asking if I could perform a burial at sea. Of course.

As usual, I asked if the deceased liked the water, the ocean. It seems very important to me that if someone is going to their eternal rest; it should be somewhere they like. If they were scared of the water, or hated the ocean; it seems a burial at sea would not be ideal for that soul.

We verified that she, the deceased, indeed did like walks on the beach.

Next was how many people are planning to attend – the boats hold a maximum of six live guests, one crew, and one captain. No one.

The ocean was not to the liking of the son, his wife, his sister; so no one would accompany her on this final voyage. I suppose it’s somewhat common for ashes to be distributed from a plane and the family not be present; I hadn’t heard of anyone planning a burial at sea with no family present.

After a flurry of texts back and forth, details were settled. I came home from work and found a maroon bag with a funeral parlor emblem on it, and within, a cardboard box. I was familiar with those, and the weight seemed normal, so I didn’t open it.

When the day arrived, a beautiful afternoon, a friend and I boarded Stimulus to participate in a Wednesday night race. We hoped the deceased liked a bit of excitement on the water, so she was aboard when we won the race.

Post-race, we headed away from the sunset to make the trek offshore. Though neither of us actually knew the deceased, and no family were present, we felt something momentus should be spoken aloud. My racing partner spoke first, welcoming her aboard again, thanking her for accompanying us on a well-played race, and telling her where we were headed.

I added in a bit about the land and the sea, and how the sunset looked. In addition, I took a couple photos of the wooden box resting in a coil of line on the deck as we headed through the inlet. The colors of the sky were beautiful, and I tried to imagine how she looked, or how she would have looked if she was on shore watching us head out the inlet.

Once we reached the three-mile mark, we opened the box and carefully checked the wind direction. With waves lapping at the hull and the sails fully drawing, we released her into the sea and made note of the latitude and longitude. I texted a photo of the boat, sky, and box with the coordinates to the son as we headed back in toward shore.

Grief is different for everyone, and as always, I appreciated the quiet sail back to the dock, pondering my own earthly stay.

Burial at Sea, Stories of Burials at Sea from Sailboats I’ve Captained for the Ceremony

How To Perform a Legal Burial at Sea // Saying Goodbye to Your Loved Ones by Boat or Plane

The link above will take you to an article about how to legally conduct a burial at sea.

If you need to rent a boat, that can be arranged, as well. You might want to read: Finding a Boat to Rent // There’s an App for That Too // Boat Rental Apps.

Burial at Sea, Stories of Burials at Sea from Sailboats I’ve Captained for the Ceremony

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Updated October 21, 2023.


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