Ashes become part of reef
By LAWRENCE HAJNA
OFF THE COAST OF OCEAN CITY
With her right fist clutched over her heart and tears trickling down her cheeks, Jamie Wehler watched as her husband's ashes, encased in a concrete artificial-reef ball, slid off the back of a nearby boat and into the Atlantic.
It was time for her to say a final goodbye to the physical remains of Charles Michael Wehler, her husband of 32 years, who died a year ago.
He was a man who loved nature and camping at the South Jersey shore. He also liked boats and fishing, but only catch-and-release, his wife said.
"To him, nature was something that you become a part of; you leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures. I think that's just what we've done," the Westminster, Md., woman said a few minutes after her husband's reef ball sank into more than 60 feet of water.
Charles Michael was one of 11 people, many from New Jersey, who, in effect, became part of a state artificial reef when their ashes, encased in the hollow balls honeycombed with porthole-like holes, were sunk nine miles off Ocean City on Tuesday.
Atlanta-based Eternal Reefs Inc. has placed the remains of more than 300 people in similar reef modules, mostly off the coast of Southeastern states. This was the company's first placement off New Jersey.
The reef balls joined old barges, bridge rubble, concrete and even old Army tanks sunk over the years at the reef site off Great Egg Harbor Inlet.
The reefs are designed to improve fishing opportunities by creating habitat and refuge for fish on the sandy, featureless continental shelf off much of the East Coast.
On Tuesday, the remains of six people were sunk in a large module about the size of a small car. The remains of five others were sunk in four smaller modules.
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The families of five of those people rode on a charter fishing boat to witness the sinking of the reefs and to take part in a memorial.
Robert I. Aronson and his sister-in-law, Marion T. Mulligan, were placed together in one reef ball. Robert was an avid fisherman and Marion also loved the sea, said Robert's wife, Kitt.
"My husband died four years ago and I just couldn't find the place where I wanted him to be. Then, after my sister died and I discovered Eternal Reefs, I just decided to put the remains together because they loved each other in life," the Matawan woman said.
Barbara Stuart of Galveston, Texas, had her mother's ashes placed in a reef module. Virginia Yard died of cancer on Dec. 23, 2000, at age 81. Yard lived in Atlantic City much of her life and always lived near a coastline, her daughter said.
"It's finally coming to a closure," said Stuart, joined by her 16-year-old niece, Jessica Yard of Somers Point. "It's been kind of on our mind for years, what are we going to do when the time comes. None of us could come up with something, and she didn't want to be put on a shelf, in an urn and be in the house."
Dee Dee Starkey and Debbie Schlatter had the remains of their mother, Cecelia Schoppaul, sunk in a reef ball. Schoppaul, who died this past April at the age of 73, had wanted her ashes scattered on the ocean. But the family saw a story about the New Jersey placement plans and contacted Eternal Reefs.<"She just loved the ocean," said Starkey, of Galloway. "That was her dream, to have a house overlooking the rough ocean."
After watching a crane guide each of the reef balls gently down a wooden skid, each family member was given a small mockup of the real thing to toss into the ocean with flowers.
Comforted by her sister, Marybeth Leopold, Wehler threw a mockup off the stern, raised her open hands over the ocean and gave the wedding ring on her right hand a kiss.
"The hard part was knowing that this was the end of any physical connection," she said afterward. "But I still know this is right, this is where he would want to be."
Reach Lawrence Hajna at (856) 486-2466 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org