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Ashes interred on reef in Gulf off of Marco Island

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

By JANINE A. ZEITLIN, Staff Writer

He was not a sentimental guy. Jim Bender was a German- blooded roofer and former Detroit cop. He hated graveyards and wouldn't go to funerals. Although he did like to do one sweet thing for his wife Debby.

He liked to bring her yellow roses.

Kassidy Mcintyre, of St. Petersburg, tosses flowers on the final resting place of her grandmother, Charlen Groat, who died at the age of 70. Mcintyre was one of those taking part in a memorial service held by Eternal Reef on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 10 miles off the coast of Marco. Eternal Reefs, based in Decatur, Georgia, is a company that creates man- made reefs built partly of loved ones' ashes to create an environmentally friendly resting ground. Erik Kellar/Staff (2)

On Aug. 6, Debby Bender boarded a boat with a yellow rose to throw into the Gulf of Mexico where her husband's ashes were laid in the most unconventional way.

Bender's ashes were poured into concrete to make one of the seven artificial reef balls built with human remains deployed Aug. 6 at a site about 10 miles south of Marco Island.

The site is one of 22 permitted artificial reefs in Collier County.

Four boats steered by volunteers from the Rod and Gun Club towed the modules, which range from $3,200 for a 4,000-pound module to $1,500 for a 400-pound module.

It was the third deployment of human reef balls for Eternal Reefs Inc., the 4-year-old Georgia-based company which developed the concept.

Bender, who was 50 when he died in November, loved to scuba dive. He loved it so much that he would dive in rock quarries in suburban Detroit, where he and his wife Debby, 48, lived. Debby Bender took up diving to be with her husband.

They spent their winters in Key Largo to dive together.

Divers and boats prepare to deflate bladders filled with air at the center of the Eternal Reefs permanent memorials after they have been towed out to where the reefs will be dropped 40 feet below the water's surface.

When Bender who was killed after his gun went off while attempting to stow it from his grandson died, his wife immediately thought about the artificial reef balls. Her husband didn't want to be buried in a graveyard.

Jim Bender's 87-year-old German father didn't like the idea.

He wanted him to buried in a traditional way.

But Debby did it anyway.

"His father had a hard time with it," she said. "Some people don't believe that's the way you should be buried. ... But I have to respect my husband's wishes, too."

Nearly 20 family members of the dead in the reef balls made the trip to the Gulf for a short ceremony and to watch the balls drift to the bottom. Families came from across the country Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. There were great- grandchildren, children, wives and fathers.

The night before, family members wrote final good-byes on their loved one's reef balls with chalk before the Marco Rod and Gun Club volunteers towed them off from the Isles of Capri. The organization advocates the creation of artificial reefs for fishing and holds permits for two sites off Collier County's shores.

A 100-foot charter boat taxied the families from the Marco Island Yacht Club around 11 the morning of Aug. 6 after some delay because of engine problems with the towing ships.

On the hour-long trip to the site, some family members talked about their loved ones, some didn't. The names of the dead floated in the chatter above the boat. Some smiled, some shed tears.

Large orange floating bladders kept the heavy reef balls afloat. The bladders were placed within the reef balls and attached with a metal cable inside it. With a rope, another orange bladder was then attached between the boat and the reef ball, which looks almost like an over-sized honeycomb.

The names of the dead were announced as the reef balls with the people's remains were slowly guided to the bottom by two divers who deflated the balls and led the balls to the bottom.

Three sisters from the Chicago area said, "Way to go, Mom," and "She's probably thinking they've listened for once in their lives," as they smiled and watched the reef ball of their mother, who re quested her remains be cast off that way, drift to the bottom.

Charlene Groat died at 70 from complications from smoking, April 23, 2002.

Eternal Reefs will provide the families with the exact longitude and latitude of their loved one's reef ball in case they want to visit. Some held a bronze plaque with the dead person's name, or a saying.

Robin Fannin's plaque said, "Robin was not finished with life." The adventurous 31-year-old aircraft mechanic from Indianapolis died from leukemia, Oct. 23, 2001.

After the reef balls were deployed, Don Brawley, president of Eternal Reefs, relayed a message from one of the diver's that, "big schools of fish were already moving in," he said excitedly. Everyone smiled.

Thunder then struck and lightning flashed.

He hurriedly read "The Sea," a poem by John F. Kennedy.

Aside from the waves lapping and the hum of the engine, all was quiet. The family members wiped their eyes then tossed their Publix-bought bouquets provided by the company into the water and snapped photographs of the pink roses and purple carnations bobbing away into the Gulf's green horizon.

Debby Bender, who was at the tip of the bow the whole trip, with her mother and father at her sides, tossed her special yellow rose and quickly grabbed her hand-held video camera to capture the moment.

Rain began to fall and pushed the group inside.

"It's bittersweet," said Debby Bender. "For the last nine months, this is what I've been focusing on. It's closure but it's like, now what are you going to do? ... I could have stayed out there the whole time. It'd never be enough time but you have to say good-bye sometime."

When the rain stopped, she returned to the bow and kept watch with her video camera.

She plans to return next year to dive near her husband's reef.

She wants to check up on him, she said.

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