What is a burial at sea?
When a person dies, they’re usually cremated or buried in a cemetery or burial ground. However, there is another option: burial at sea.
This is just what it sounds like – the person is lowered into the water and allowed to sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Sometimes the person is placed in a coffin. Other times, they’re wrapped in a weighted shroud. It depends on the person’s wishes and the laws of their country. In the UK, sea burials must use a special type of coffin.
Burial at sea is quite rare in the UK. According to the BBC, only around 12 people are buried at sea each year.
Can anybody be buried at sea?
Yes. Some people believe you must have served in the Royal Navy to qualify for a sea burial. However, this is a myth – anybody can choose to be buried at sea.
Bear in mind that some religions don’t allow sea burials, though. In Judaism and Islam, for example, they’re only allowed in exceptional circumstances.
How do I apply for a burial at sea in the UK?
You’ll have to apply for a special licence if you want to bury a person at sea. This licence is granted by different authorities depending on where the burial will take place. Check the GOV.UK website for details.
There are a few UK funeral directors who specialise in sea burials. They can help you apply for a licence and make all the necessary arrangements.
If you’d prefer to do it yourself, you’ll need to follow a few steps. These are:
- Choosing a suitable location
- Preparing the body
- Building a special coffin
- Getting paperwork in order
Choosing a suitable location
While anyone can be buried at sea, they can’t be buried anywhere. The government lists three suitable sites for sea burials in England and Northern Ireland:
- Newhaven, off East Sussex
- Tynemouth, off Tyne and Wear
- The Needles spoil ground, close to the Isle of Wight
There may be other designated areas for sea burials in Scotland and Wales. You’ll need to check with the relevant authority for details.
If you want to have a sea burial in a different location from the ones listed above, you can suggest a different location when you submit your application. This can be complicated though. You’ll need to provide the exact coordinates of the location, as well as evidence to show it’s a suitable spot. It can’t be too close to the shore or disturb commercial fishing routes, for example.
Preparing the body
There are strict rules in place to keep our oceans clean and protect wildlife. So if you want to bury a person at sea, you must make sure it’s safe to do so.
This means the person can’t be embalmed, as embalming chemicals can pollute the water. And they must be wearing biodegradable clothing that won’t damage the environment.
You’ll also need to get a special certificate from a doctor. This confirms that the person is free from fever and infection.
Building a special coffin
You can’t bury someone at sea in a regular coffin. It needs to be specially built to make sure it sinks properly and won’t pollute the water.
For sea burials in England and Northern Ireland, the coffin must be weighted and isn’t allowed to contain plastic, lead, copper or zinc. You can read the full requirements here.
The rules might be different in other parts of the UK. You should check with the relevant authority if you want a sea burial in Scotland or Wales.
Getting paperwork in order
To get your burial at sea licence, you need to submit several documents. These are:
- The doctor’s certificate
- The death certificate
- A notice that says you want to remove the body from the UK mainland (this is available from a coroner)
You’ll also have to pay a fee. In the UK and Northern Ireland, the licence fee is currently £50.
Can I scatter ashes in the sea?
Yes, you can scatter ashes at sea. This is much more popular than burial at sea because it’s less expensive and easier to do.
Scattering ashes at sea in the UK requires no licence or special permission. All you have to do is hire a boat, sail to a suitable spot and sprinkle the ashes on the water. Or, if you prefer, you can scatter the ashes from a beach or bury them in sand and let the water wash them away.
This might be a nice way to say goodbye to someone with a deep connection to the sea. It would be simple and inexpensive, but very poignant. Perhaps you could invite a few friends or family members to help scatter the ashes, then stand in silence as the waves lap peacefully around you.