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Family members bid farewell to loved ones at artificial reef

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

By JANINE A. ZEITLIN, jazeitlin@naplesnews.com

He was not a sentimental guy. Jim Bender was a German-blooded roofer and former Detroit police officer. He hated graveyards and wouldn't go to funerals. He did like to do this 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, Charlene Groat, who died at the age of 70. Mcintyre was among those taking part in a memorial service held by Eternal Reefs on Tuesday, 10 miles south of Marco Island. Eternal Reefs, based in Decatur, Ga., is a company that creates artificial reef balls made with human remains to create an environmentally friendly resting ground. Erik Kellar/Staff

On Tuesday, 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 made with human remains deployed Tuesday 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 Marco 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 that 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.

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."

Divers prepare concrete domes, each containing a buoy, that float the manmade concrete memorial reef out to its final resting place 10 miles offshore and 40 feet below the surface off the coast of Marco Island on Tuesday. Each dome is dedicated to one person with an attached brass plaque and personalized inscription. Erik Kellar/Staff

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

The night before, family members wrote final goodbyes with their loved one's reef balls with chalk before the Marco Rod and Gun Club volunteers towed them off from the Isles of Capri on Tuesday. 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 a.m. 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 like an oversized honeycomb.

The names of the dead were announced as the reef ball with the person'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 mom, who requested her remains be cast off that way, drift to the bottom. Charlene Groat died at 70 from complications from smoking April 23.

Pam Rose, left, waits to toss flowers during the final pass over her mother, Charlene Groat's manmade memorial reef. Eternal Reefs, based in Decatur, Ga., is a company that creates artificial reef balls made with human remains to create an environmentally friendly resting ground. Erik Kellar/Staff

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.

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

Thunder then boomed 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 bouquets 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 beside her mother and father, 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 goodbye sometime."

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