By LAWRENCE HAJNA
When Albert William Marlin Jr. died of an epileptic seizure 21 years ago, his family had an understanding that his ashes someday would be buried with his father, who passed away six years earlier, and his mother when she died.
This changed about 10 months ago when the former Cherry Hill family learned about Eternal Reefs Inc. The Atlanta-based company will place Albert's ashes in a concrete artificial reef ball and sink it off the coast of New Jersey on Sept. 20.
"We just thought this would be more fitting because he loved the water, he loved to fish," said his mother, Jean Martin, who remarried after Albert's father died. "His dad had a boat and they used to spend a lot of time on the boat and on the water."
Eternal Reefs has given new meaning to the idea of burial at sea.
The company plans to place the cremated remains of Albert and six other people encased in igloo-like modules, or reef balls, most likely off Ocean City. You could say it's the last gift that keeps on giving ‡ back to the environment, that is.
"It was kind of a happy decision," Martin said of the choice to place her son's ashes in a reef module. "He was quite interested in the environment, recycling and stuff like that."
Albert, one of three children, died at the age of 33.
The company says the reef balls create habitat by giving mollusks and other marine life something to latch onto in the otherwise barren plains of the continental shelf. This marine life, in turn, attracts other fish, which anglers can hook.
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"We're not creating underwater cemeteries; we're creating artificial reefs," said Don Brawley, the company's president. An idea takes root
In the early 1990s, Brawley and some of his scuba-diving buddies founded a company that made concrete artificial reef balls to mimic natural coral heads found around Florida. They were strictly to enhance fish habitat and have become quite popular with many fishery management programs, including New Jersey's.
In 1998, Brawley's father-in-law, Carleton Palmer, who loved the ocean and was dying of cancer, approached him with an unusual request: Put his cremated remains in those same reef balls and sink his remains at sea.
"He said: `I'd rather spend eternity with all that life and excitement going on down there than be buried with a bunch of old dead people,' " Brawley recalled.
Palmer died two months later. Brawley placed his ashes in 15 concrete balls and dropped them in 40 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, 7 miles off Sarasota, Fla.
"He wanted to be a reef, so I made him a reef," Brawley said.
The company encases the ashes in small concrete balls, then casts them in the larger reef modules, which are honeycombed with porthole-like openings that lead to a hollow center that serves as refuge for smaller fish.
The company has entombed the remains of 300 people in reef balls since its first "community reef placement" of ashes from 20 people off Charleston, S.C., in 2001.
Most have been placed off Florida and South Carolina. The company has worked north this summer, conducting placements off Maryland and Virginia.
The reef balls placed off New Jersey will also contain the ashes of people from Maryland and Ohio.
The modules range from 400 pounds to the size of a large car - the 4,000-pound Atlantis model. The cost of being placed in an Atlantis module is $4,995. Placement takes place from a large boat equipped with a crane.
Inclusion in a community reef, like the one of Charleston, costs $995.
The company also offers a model for pets.
To control the cost of charter boats, the company tries to line up a number of interments before making a placement. Brawley said the number of remains placed off New Jersey next month could rise.
The company is still working with state environmental officials on exactly where the reef modules will be place, but an existing state artificial reef area 7 miles off Ocean City is the likely site. Another reef site off Atlantic City has been discussed.
Over the years, the state has placed a wide assortment of objects - Army tanks, barges, concrete blocks, even old New York City subway cars - out in the ocean to create reefs for fish. In all, the state has created 4,000 such artificial reefs.
It has also dropped close to 4,000 reef balls produced by the company's arm that led to the creation of Eternal Reefs, Reef Ball Development Group Ltd.
These reef balls have been very successful, attracting as many as 145 different species of little marine life such as mussels, crabs and shrimp and as many as 20 species of adult fish, among them tog, sea bass and summer flounder, said Bill Figley, a state fisheries biologist.
The law allows scattering of ashes in federal waters, which begin three miles off the coast, Figley said. In the past, family of deceased lovers of the ocean would sponsor the creation of memorial reefs and would sometimes scatter ashes in the water around them, he said.
Some would also drop memorial plaques in the areas of the reef. But this is the first time remains containing ashes will be sunk as part of a reef off New Jersey.
"In perspective, it's a very small, token amount of the overall program," Figley said of the Sept. 20 placements, which the state will monitor.
"You never know where it's going to go from here," he added.
Loved ones have been invited to watch the casting process in Sarasota on Aug. 27. Marlin's family does not plan to attend.
But the family does plan to go to a viewing Sept. 19 in Somers Point, during which loved ones typically make rubbings of plaques or write final messages in chalk on the modules. The family has not decided if it will go out with the boat that will plunge the reef balls into the ocean the next day.
"We haven't made up our minds if this is something we want to do," Martin said.
Reach Lawrence Hajna at (856) 486-2466 or firstname.lastname@example.org