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April 9, 2004, 8:20PM

Sea burial: Ashes to ashes, dust to reef

Copyright 2004 (Sarasota) Herald-Tribune

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Clear skies greeted relatives and friends who gathered Monday to put their loved ones to rest two miles off Lido Key.

They boarded fishing boats and headed out to a spot where 18 concrete balls, each weighing hundreds of pounds, bobbed on floats in front of them.

The "reef balls" contained the ashes of people who chose to be buried beneath the sea.

"I'm so happy with the choice," said Annalise O'Brien, whose grandparents, Betty and Leonard Greening of Sarasota, were buried in a reef ball. "There's something alive about the ocean. It carries them on."

After cancer took Betty Greening, her family decided to inter her in a reef ball because the couple loved to take cruises and loved Sarasota's waters.

Before the family had a chance to complete her arrangements, cancer claimed Leonard Greening as well. So their ashes were placed in a reef ball together to continue a marriage of 58 years in a new way.

Twenty members of the Greening family watched as the reef balls were unhooked from the floats and sank beneath the surface, dropping to the Gulf of Mexico floor 35 feet below.

Members of all 18 families threw flowers in the water and hugged one another as the names of the deceased were called out over the ship's loudspeaker.

More than 250 people from Virginia to Texas have been buried at sea during the past three years by Eternal Reefs, an Atlanta-based company.

The burials also are a way to help the environment by creating structures that benefit fish and other marine life.

The company incorporates cremated remains into a cement mixture used to cast artificial reef formations at a Sarasota plant. The process, including the shipboard memorial ceremony, costs from $1,495 to $4,995.

Keith Cooper's 43-year-old brother, Michael, was killed in a car accident in Atlanta last year and was among those being buried Monday.

"He told his wife if anything ever happened to him he thought this was the neatest thing that could be done with him," Cooper said. "This has brought some real closure to the process."

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