ON THE GULF OF MEXICO - Twelve-year-old Justin Pierce
loved to fish and snorkel before he died in an accident driving an
all-terrain vehicle. Now his parents think they've found a way for
their son to remain close to the water he loved.
They mixed his ashes with cement to form an artificial reef -
called an Eternal Reef - that was placed in the shallow water off
Sarasota in late October. The dome, which resembles a large concrete
Wiffle ball, helps to restore a critical underwater habitat while
becoming a living memorial with coral and fish.
"In a way, he's still alive," said Justin's mother, Lorna.
The Pierces took part in the growing trend of alternative
funerals and memorials. Sarasota has become the largest site for
Eternal Reefs with more than 100 of the underwater memorials, some
containing the remains of more than one person. Another 100 reefs
are scattered along the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast.
And reefs aren't the only option. Cremated remains can be turned
into fireworks, shot into space, turned into diamonds, made into
artwork or enclosed in keepsake jewelry.
"What is unappetizing to one person is very much appealing to
another," said Jack Springer, executive director of the
Chicago-based North American Cremation Association.
The trend of personalizing funeral services is driven, in part,
by an increase in cremation. According to Springer, about 687,000
people were cremated in 2003 and that number is expected to increase
by about 40 percent by 2025.
"It is expanding the options that are available to families,"
said Paul Dixon, executive director of the Funeral Ethics
Association in Springfield, Ill. "I do think that it appeals to a
certain segment of society, but I don't know that it's for
Roberta Morris, 77, a retiree in nearby Venice, had planned to
spread the ashes of her husband at sea, but then she learned about
the cremation reefs.
"It's not death," she said. "It's just the most romantic thing to
do with your spouse."
Her husband, Robert, was an avid fisherman until 15 years ago,
when he was disabled with a brain disorder. "He would have loved
this," his wife said.
The concrete reefs began as an ecological project, not a funeral
service, said founder Don Brawley. He and some friends who are
amateur snorkelers developed the so-called "reef balls" to help
restore the underwater habitat. Now more than 500,000 reef balls
rest on the ocean floor off 48 countries.
In 1998, Brawley's father-in-law, Carleton Palmer, said he'd like
to be cremated and have his remains mixed in one of the reef
"He said he'd rather spend eternity down there with all that life
going on than stuck in a field with a bunch of dead people," Brawley
said. Months later, Palmer died of cancer and Brawley complied with
his wishes, making the first Eternal Reef.
As he told friends about his father-in-law's unique resting
place, others expressed interest in doing the same and Eternal Reefs
Inc. was born. The remains of snorkelers, anglers,
environmentalists, and a Navy diver with his dog are now entombed in
Brawley said the reefs, which start at about $1,000, help
families work through their grief and restore the coastal habitat at
no cost to the government.
Families who choose a reef memorial begin by coming to the plant
in Sarasota to mix their loved ones remains in the concrete and pour
the concrete into a reef ball-shaped mold. Families must provide
their own transportation and lodging to the reef site. It takes
about a month for the concrete to set.
Barbara Jack, 45, of Valley Forge, Penn., said the other families
making reefs were "an unexpected comfort." Her 54-year-old husband,
Lloyd, died while waiting for a lung transplant. Before he died he
requested his remains be put in an Eternal Reef, a fitting resting
place for the owner of a concrete business who loved to dive in the
Barbara Jack and the other families returned to Sarasota last
month to say goodbye and watch the 20 reefs go into the ocean.
They held a viewing, including military honors for Lloyd Jack, a
Vietnam veteran, and four others. The next day the reefs were taken
out to sea on a barge, and a crane lowered them into the water. The
families watched from two boats and threw flowers in the water.
"It was the most wonderful experience," Barbara Jack said. "It is
so reassuring that I know he is where he loved to be the most, with
Justin Pierce's father, Matthew, had trouble holding the video
camera still as he sobbed when his son's reef dipped below the
water. Justin, who was born in Sarasota, died four years ago and the
Pierces said they felt like they were bringing him home. His parents
now live in Orlando and say they plan to get their Scuba diving
certification so they can visit Justin's reef and watch it grow.
"Even if we're just standing on the shore, looking at the
sunset," Lorna Pierce said, "we know he's out there."
ON THE NET
Eternal Reefs: http://www.eternalreefs.com/
Cremation Association of North America: http://www.cremationassociation.org/
Funeral Ethics Association: http://www.fea.org/