Burial at sea: who is entitled to one?

Although burial at sea ceremonies are commonly associated with sailors of the Royal Navy, the practice is not exclusively reserved for them.

Currently only a dozen or so people are buried off the coast of the British Isles each year, but it remains an option for anyone who loved the sea and who wants to be laid to rest in the world’s largest cemetery.

However, although it is an option open to anyone in theory, the process is subject to strict regulation and there are many factors to take into consideration if you wish to arrange a sea burial for your loved one.

Burial at sea: how to apply

In order to bury your loved one at sea you must first apply for a license from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). To do this you will need to acquire the following pieces of paperwork:

  1. The death certificate. You receive this upon registering the death
  2. A certificate of freedom from fever and infection. You can obtain this from the doctor who was caring for your loved one at the time of their death. If they were not in hospital, then contact their GP
  3. A notice to a coroner of intention to remove a body from England. When registering the death of your loved one, inform the registrar that you are applying for a sea burial and they will give you a certificate of a disposal. You must then give this to the coroner and they will give you the notice

Burial at sea: other necessary preparations

When preparing your loved one for a burial at sea, you will need to ensure that they are in a suitable coffin:

  1. Comprised of natural materials, without plastic, copper, lead or zinc
  2. Made of softwood
  3. Drilled with between 40 and 50 two inch holes
  4. Weighted at the base with 200 kg of secured concrete, iron or steel
  5. Bands of steel from top to bottom and several more every 30cms
  6. Butt-jointed corners with steel right angle brackets

In addition, your loved one must:

  1. Not be embalmed
  2. Be lightly dressed in biodegradable clothing
  3. Have a non-biodegradable identification tag around their neck

Burial at sea: where does it take place?

There are five designated sites for burial at sea in the UK, three in England and two in Scotland. These are:

  1. Between Newhaven and Hastings, East Sussex
  2. Off the coast of Tynemouth, Tyne and Wear
  3. The Needles Spoil Ground, near the Isle of Wight
  4. 210 miles west of Oban
  5. 15 miles west of John O’Groats

If you would like to propose an alternative site for your loved one’s burial at sea, you are free to do so. However, you must specify the exact coordinates of the location and consider whether the location is appropriate.

You will have to take into account factors such as:

  1. Currents
  2. Water depth
  3. Pipelines
  4. Fishing
  5. Wrecks

Burial at sea: the costs

The cost of a burial at sea in the UK is around £2,200, without taking into account any other services such as a funeral director.

All of the five designated UK sites for a burial at sea cost £50. Should you wish to apply for a sea burial in a location of your own choosing, you will need to pay £175.

You should also take into account transport costs (including the provider of the boat) and any third party services.

Burial at sea: downsides and alternatives

There are several downsides to a burial at sea.

The MMO does not actually recommend burial at sea. It is not the most environmentally friendly option, thanks to the steel and wood, and the transport costs both on land and by boat are high due to the large and heavily weighted coffin.

There is also the significant risk of the body accidentally resurfacing – a potentially traumatic situation for you and your nearest and dearest. Although you might wish your loved one to rest in peace this is by no means guaranteed with a traditional sea burial.

The MMO instead suggests scattering the ashes of a loved one at sea following cremation. This requires no permit, has fewer transport costs, necessitates far less paperwork and can be done wherever you choose.

On the other hand, if your loved one wanted a burial at sea to symbolise a return to nature, their ashes can be enclosed in a specially designed memorial reef pyramid which is then sunk to form part of an underwater ecosystem off the coast of Dorset.