Burial at sea

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Not to be confused with Ship burial.
For the downloadable episode "Burial at Sea" for BioShock Infinite, see BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea.
Burial at Sea for two casualties of a Japanese submarine attack on the US aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay, November 1943

Burial at sea is the disposal of human remains in the ocean, normally from a ship or boat. It is regularly performed by navies, and is done by private citizens in many countries.

Burial at sea ceremony for cremated remains, on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, April 2011

By religion[edit]

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 religious representative (of the decedent's religion or the state religion) performs the ceremony.

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. Other types of burial at sea include the mixing of the ashes with concrete and dropping the concrete block to form an artificial reef such as the Atlantis Reef.

Below is a list of religions that allow burial at sea, with some details of the burial. However, beliefs and views may differ within the same religion.


There are very few traditional Buddhist burials at sea. Traditionally, the deceased are cremated and the ashes are placed in a grave or columbarium. Particularly in East Asian or Mahayana Buddhism, a physical gravesite is considered important for the conduct of memorial and ancestor rites. The Buddhist Churches of America, the North American branch of Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, has created a service for Buddhist burials at sea, primarily for military service members. In Thailand ashes are generally placed in a wreath with lit candles and floated off to sea from a vessel followed by a procession of mourning wreaths, with lit candles also.


Officially, the Roman Catholic Church prefers normal casket burials over cremations, but does allow for cremation subject to the condition that the ashes are entombed or buried. Catholics believe it is not proper to scatter or pour the cremated remains over the sea, water, or on the land. According to the Roman Catholic Church this action does not give due respect to the remains of the deceased, nor does it allow for the closure and healing of family and friends. Likewise they see that the custom of housing the remains with family or friends and not placing the deceased in the ground does not offer loved ones a specific and sacred place to visit the individual. Visiting the deceased in a holy place provides believers with a space to offer prayers, commune with those who have gone before them in faith, and reminds them to await the resurrection of their own bodies. Burial at sea in a casket or in an urn is approved for cases where the deceased expired in the sea. The committal prayer number 406§4 is used in this case.[1]

However the Catholic church does allow human cremated remains to be scattered at sea if in an ocean friendly urn, intact before deployment.[2]


The Anglican Communion has detailed procedures for burial at sea. The ship has to be stopped, and the body has to be sewn in canvas, suitably weighted. Anglican (and other) chaplains of the Royal Navy bury cremated remains of ex-Naval personnel at sea. Scattering of cremated remains is discouraged, not least for practical reasons.

The Book of Common Prayer (1928) of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA), a member of the Anglican Communion provides a specific prayer of committal for burials at sea:

At the Burial of the Dead at Sea. ¶ The same Office may be used; but instead of the Sentence of Committal, the Minister shall say, UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.[3]

Many Lutheran naval veterans and seamen prefer to be buried at sea. In those cases either the casket or urn is set to sea, or ashes scattered. The procedure is similar as that with Anglican. Some parishes have specific consecrated sea areas where ashes can be sprinkled.


Traditionally, the deceased are cremated, the bones and ashes are collected, and the ashes/remains are immersed in the Ganges River if possible or in any other river if not.


The sacred texts of Islam prefer 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 before decay, or if burial at land becomes impossible, burial at sea is allowed. A weight is tied to the feet of the body, and the body is lowered into the water. This would preferably occur in an area where the remains are not immediately eaten by scavengers.

In the Sunni Fiqh book Umdat al-Salik wa Uddat al-Nasik, the condition for sea burial is:

It is best to bury him (the deceased) in the cemetery... If someone dies on a ship and it is impossible to bury him on land, the body is placed (O: tightly lashed) between two planks (O: to obviate bloating) and thrown into the sea (O: so that it reaches shore, even if the inhabitants are non-Muslims, since a Muslim might find the body and bury it facing the direction of prayer (qibla)).[4]


According to Jewish law, a dead person must be quickly buried and burial requires covering in earth.[5] This law is derived from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21:23 "Bury, you will bury him the same day; for the (unburied body) is a curse to God" the double command to bury causing a positive commandment to entomb in the earth and a negative commandment forbidding leaving an unburied body. The legal text Shulchan Aruch brings a case example explaining that even if a person is known to have drown in a closed body of water such as a small pond where there can be certainty that the victim had not somehow survived, the family does not begin ritual mourning and remains in extended state of most intense mourning aninut until either the body is found or after an exhaustive search despairs of recovering and burying the body.[6] This shows that the body is considered unburied when underwater; as shiva mourning normally only begins after burial. B'resheit(Genesis) 3:19 states "With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from (dust) you were taken and you are dust, and to dust you will return." From this we see that the only proper treatment of a dead body is to physically cover it with earth once land is available for the crew to bury the body, rather than to leave the body at sea or some other fate such as cremation.

If for some reason the body of someone deceased aboard a ship causes an immediate life threat to those aboard the vessel the commandment to protect innocent life or pikuach nefesh overrides nearly all commandments including the command to bury the dead, as any appropriate actions to ensure safety of surviving crew are required to be taken which may include jettisoning a body at sea without burial. However, attempts would later be made to recover and bury when possible without life hazard.[7]

An example of the desire to bury a body in the ground even after it has been long dead at sea, is that of the Israeli submarine Dakar which was lost with no survivors in 1968 but was only discovered in 1999 lying broken at a depth of 3,000 meters. Search and recovery of any potentially existing remains at this very difficult to access depth has not shown results despite requests from family and the Chief Rabbi of the IDF.[8][9][10]

By country[edit]


Burial at sea within Australian territorial waters, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf is covered by the Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping Act) 1981 administered by the federal Department of the Environment. A permit is required for burial of bodies at sea. Permits are usually only granted in cases of a strong connection to the sea, for example long serving navy personnel. The body must not be embalmed or placed in a casket, it may only be sewn into a weighted shroud. The burial must be in water deeper than 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) and not interfere with shipping, fishing or undersea communications. Australian Defence Force vessels engaged in armed conflicts or emergency situations are exempt from these requirements.[11]

No permit is required to scatter ashes at sea.

United Kingdom[edit]

Burial at sea was a method hypothetically suggested by the then Medical Officer of Health for Liverpool, Dr Duncan Dolton, in which unburied bodies could be buried at sea during any extended strike by gravediggers union the GMWU during the Winter of Discontent. The suggestion caused great alarm amongst the public and helped prompt a resolution to the strike.[citation needed] British colonial burials at sea of the 18th and 19th century involved wrapping the deceased in sailcoth weighted with cannonballs.

In England[edit]

In England today, cremated remains may be scattered freely at sea, but a burial must be made in a coffin meeting regulatory requirements and in one of three locations: off The Needles, Isle of Wight; between Hastings and Newhaven; off Tynemouth, North Tyneside. Permission may also be sought for a novel burial site.[12]

United States[edit]

A funeral director is not required for the burial of cremated remains at sea. However, full body burials require specific preparation to ensure the body or coffin sinks quickly. And in many states a licensed funeral director is required.[2] The Environmental Protection Agency regulations for full body burials at sea in the United States require that the site of interment be 3 nautical miles (5.6 km; 3.5 mi) from land and at a depth of at least 600 feet (180 m). California prohibits whole body burial within its state-asserted three-mile limit. Off the eastern coast of the United States, the closest sufficient depths are off Long Island (75 miles/121 km), Ocracoke (20 miles/32 km), and Miami (5 miles/8.0 km). This may require travel in excess of 30 miles (48 km) for a suitable site.[13]

Departing form the New England Area only requires a voyage of appx 45 miles to sea to reach the required 600' ocean depth.[2] Sufficient depth is within 10 miles or less at many harbors along the U.S. west coast, including San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Fort Bragg, Eureka, and Crescent City, all in California.[14] The United States Navy inters intact remains from Norfolk and San Diego only.[15] The United States Navy requires a metal casket for intact remains, but full body burial in a suitably weighted shroud is also legal as seen at [2] The United States is similar to many countries which permit the spreading of cremation ashes within their Exclusive Economic zone - when spreading ashes from a ship which is registered in a different country, the regulations and reporting procedures for the ships flag state need to be complied with once the vessel is in international waters, that is, outside 12 nautical miles. Ships follow the London convention principles, as opposed to MARPOL regulations, as the ash is intentionally taken on board for discharge at sea, as opposed to ash generated on passage from the ship's incinerators. It should be further considered that on 1 January 2013, MARPOL Annex V came into force, which prevents discharge of a ship's incinerator ash.

California, U.S.[edit]

In California, the laws regarding burial at sea are heavily regulated. However, it is the only State in the U.S. that allows for cremated human remains, or cremains, to be scattered just 500 yards from any shoreline. In all other States except Hawaii, the required distance is 3 miles. There must also be a VS-9 Burial Permit issued from the County or State which states disposition to be "At sea off the coast of (SPECIFIED) County." You cannot advertise to scatter cremains without a Cremated Remains Disposer License (CRD), issued by the Department of Consumer Affairs, Cemetery and Funeral Bureau of the State of California. If you are not a licensed CRD or funeral director, you may not scatter more than 10 cremains per calendar year. See http://www.ashesonthesea.com/resources/california-law. If you are caught breaking any of these laws, you may be fined up to $5000.00 U.S. for each violation.

Cremated Remains Disposers The Department of Consumer Affairs, Cemetery and Funeral Bureau (Bureau) has prepared the following booklet to provide registered cremated remains disposers (CRDs) with information about the lawful scattering of cremated remains in the state of California. The information in this booklet includes: details about registration and renewal requirements for cremated remains disposers; requirements for obtaining state permits to dispose of cremated human remains; state storage requirements; statutory duties of cremated remains disposers; and other applicable state laws. This booklet reflects California law regarding CRDs as of January 1, 2013 contained in the Business and Professions Code (BPC) and the Health and Safety Code (HSC), and regulations contained in the California Code of Regulations (CCR). The laws and regulations referenced are also available on the Bureau’s Web site: www.cfb.ca.gov.

Permits for Disposition Cremated remains may not be scattered unless an Application and Permit for Disposition of Human Remains (VS 9) has been obtained from a local registrar of births and deaths (HSC § 103050). When cremated remains are to be scattered, the disposition permit must specify one of the following: name of the cemetery where the cremated remains will be scattered; burial at sea; address or description of the place where the cremated remains shall be scattered (HSC § 103055).

Within 10 calendar days of scattering, the CRD must file the first copy of the permit for disposition with the local registrar of births and deaths in the district in which the disposition took place, and the third copy must be returned to the local registrar where the permit was issued [HSC §§ 103060; 7117(b)]. The second copy is retained by the crematory. If scattering at sea from a boat or from the air, the CRD must also file a copy of the permit for disposition within 10 calendar days with the local registrar of births and deaths in the county nearest the point where the remains were scattered (HSC § 7117(b)).

Within 30 days of scattering, the disposer must provide a photocopy of the fully completed disposition permit to the person with the right to control the disposition of the remains (BPC § 9744). Cremated remains may not be removed from the place of cremation without a permit issued by the local registrar of births and deaths (HSC § 7055). For more information on contacting the local registrar of births and deaths, consult local or county telephone listings or the California Department of Public Health Web site: www.cdph.ca.gov.

Scattering "Scattering" is the authorized dispersal of cremated remains at sea, in other areas of the state, or commingling in a defined area within a dedicated cemetery as provided in the Health and Safety Code (HSC §§ 7010.7, 7116, 7117, 7117.1). In order to scatter cremated remains, a CRD must have specific written instructions from the individual(s) with the right to control disposition and must scatter in accordance with those instructions (BPC § 9743). All aircraft used for the scattering shall have a valid certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. All boats or vessels used for the scattering of cremated human remains shall be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles or a federal agency (BPC § 9742).

The CRD must:

  • Dispose of cremated remains within 60 days of the time the remains are received, unless the CRD presents a written, signed reason for the delay to the person(s) with the right to control disposition of the remains [BPC § 9744.5(a)(1)].
  • Scatter the cremated remains from individual containers, unless scattering at sea utilizing a scattering urn (HSC § 7117.1). Except with the express written permission of the person with the right to control the disposition of the remains, the law prohibits commingling cremated remains prior to scattering [HSC § 7054.7(a)(2)].
  • File the disposition permit with the local registrar of births and deaths within 10 calendar days of scattering (HSC § 103060). Within 30 days of scattering, the disposer must provide a photocopy of the fully completed disposition permit to the person with the right to control the disposition of the remains (BPC § 9744).
  • Scattering at Sea:
  • Cremated remains must be removed from their container before the remains are scattered at sea [HSC § 7117(a)], unless a scattering urn [closed container containing cremated remains that will dissolve and release its contents within 4 hours of being placed at sea] is used, in which case the cremated remains may be transferred from their durable container into the scattering urn no more than 7 days prior to scattering the cremated remains at sea from a boat (HSC § 7117.1).
  • Scattering at sea cannot take place within 500 yards of the shoreline, and includes the inland navigable waters of the state. Scattering at sea does not include lakes and streams, nor does it include scattering from a bridge or pier [HSC § 7117(c)].
  • Scattering in other areas of the State:
  • Cremated remains may be scattered in areas where no local prohibition exists, provided that written permission to scatter is obtained from the property owner or governing agency. State or local agencies may restrict or prohibit such scattering (HSC § 7116).
  • When cremated remains are lawfully scattered in areas other than at sea, they must be removed from their container and not be distinguishable to the public (HSC § 7116).
  • Cremated remains may not be disposed of in refuse, or in any manner other than that provided by law (HSC § 7054).

Storage Requirements The address of the cremated remains storage area must be posted at the CRD’s place of business [BPC § 9741(b)].

  • Cremated remains shall be stored in a place free from exposure to the elements and shall be responsibly maintained until disposal [BPC § 9744.5(a)(2)].
  • Cremated remains must not be stored in a manner that results in the loss of all or part of the cremated remains or the inability to individually identify the cremated remains (BPC § 9749.3).
  • Cremated remains must be received in a durable container, and prior to disposition the CRD must:
  • Keep the cremated remains in a durable container, unless utilizing a scattering urn, in which case the cremated remains cannot be transferred from the durable container more than seven (7) days before scattering at sea from a boat (HSC § 7117.1).
  • Store the cremated remains in a place free from exposure to the elements (HSC § 7054.6).
  • Responsibly maintain the cremated remains (HSC § 7054.6).
  • Cremated remains must be scattered from individual containers. The law prohibits commingling cremated remains prior to scattering, except with the express written permission of the person with the right to control the disposition of the remains [HSC § 7054.7(a)(2)]. This also applies to the use of scattering urns (HSC § 7117.1).
  • The CRD must provide the Bureau with the address and phone number of any storage facility used to store cremated remains. The Bureau may inspect any place used for storage of cremated remains without notice to the cremated remains disposer [BPC § 9744.5(a)(2)].
  • If the name or address of the CRD changes, the CRD must submit a written name or address change request (on a standard 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper) to the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau at 1625 North Market Boulevard, Suite S-208, Sacramento, CA 95834, and pay a $25 change of name or address fee (BPC § 9761; CCR § 2321). For a name change, include the following with the required fee: licensee previous name, licensee new name, license number, legible copy of government issued identification (marriage certificate, divorce decree, driver’s license) showing new name. For an address change, include the following with the required fee: licensee name, license number, old and new addresses, and contact phone number. Faxed requests will not be accepted.

Other references: [1] [2] [3] [4]

United States Navy[edit]

The burial at sea of U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, performed by the U.S. Navy on the USS Philippine Sea in the Atlantic Ocean on September 14, 2012.

The United States Navy has performed many burials at sea in its history, with wartime burials as recently as World War II, and peacetime burials still common. Enemy deaths received the same ceremony as Americans or allies. Most other armed forces also perform burials at sea, such as the British Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy.

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, people eligible for a free Navy burial at sea are:

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

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

The ceremony is divided into a military portion and a religious portion. The religious part is specific to the religion of the deceased, and may be performed by a Navy 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 which was draped over the casket is retained on board. For cremated remains, there is the option to bury the remains using the urn in a similar fashion 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 party fires a three volley salute, 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 at sea[edit]

Burial at sea for the casualties of the USS Intrepid, hit by Japanese bombs during operations in the Philippines, November 26, 1944
Navy firing detail as part of a burial-at-sea in 2008 for one of the 316 survivors of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) sinking on July 30, 1945, during World War II.
Burial at sea on the USS Enterprise, May 19, 2004.
Cremated remains at sea on the USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), May 1, 2003.

In wartime, attempts are made for burial at sea to follow the same procedure as for 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 on land. 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 usually does not include a casket, but the body is sewn into a sailcloth with weights, usually rocks or cannonballs. Cremation is usually not possible on a ship. During the Pacific campaign there were some instances where deceased aircrews were buried at sea in the remains of their damaged aircraft, which were ceremonially pushed overboard from their aircraft carrier[16][17]

Memorial services at sea[edit]

If no remains of the deceased are available a memorial service may be held, and flowers may be dropped in the water, often over or near the location of the death.

People buried at sea[edit]

A few notable burials at sea:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ NCCBUSCC.org Accessed September 3, 2010
  2. ^ a b c d http://www.NewEnglandBurialsAtSea.com
  3. ^ Book of Common Prayer (1928) p.337 [The Church Pension Fund]
  4. ^ Reliance of the Traveller, Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, p 237, Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Amanah publications, ISBN 0-915957-72-8
  5. ^ Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 362:1.
  6. ^ Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 375:7
  7. ^ Leviticus 18:5 "אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם"
  8. ^ http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-10-18/news/1992292004_1_israeli-navy-submarine-dakar-israeli-government
  9. ^ http://www.haaretz.com/news/nasa-says-remains-of-all-7-astronauts-recovered-then-retracts-1.20315
  10. ^ http://submarines.dotan.net/dakar/search/index.htm
  11. ^ "Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping Act) 1981". Australian Government. 
  12. ^ "Burial at sea". Retrieved 30 August 2015. 
  13. ^ "Federal Register, Volume 40, Section 229.1". 
  14. ^ Google Earth bathymetry
  15. ^ http://www.navy.mil/navydata/navy_legacy_hr.asp?id=204
  16. ^ "criticalpast.com, U.S. Navy TBF Avenger gunner from USS Essex is buried at sea with his aircraft during World War II, Location: Manila Philippines, Date: 1944, November 5". 
  17. ^ "In memory of Loyce Edward Deen USNR WW II, (1921 - 1944) and all who served aboard the USS Essex". 
  18. ^ Heinlein Society
  19. ^ Vincent Price (1911–1993) - Find A Grave Memorial
  20. ^ Robert Mitchum (1917–1997) - Find A Grave Memorial
  21. ^ "Doug Henning". 
  22. ^ "Sir Edmund Hillary takes final voyage, ashes scattered at sea". The New Zealand Herald. 29 February 2008. Retrieved 22 September 2011. 
  23. ^ "Osama bin Laden's body buried at sea". 2 May 2011. 
  24. ^ Yahoo report
  25. ^ Osama Bin Laden Body Headed for Burial at Sea, Officials Say - The Note
  26. ^ "Neil Armstrong's remains committed to the sea". CNN. 14 September 2012. Retrieved 15 September 2012.