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Remains become part of sea
Iver Peterson NYT
Saturday, September 25, 2004
Reef projects give new burial option for dearly departed
OCEAN CITY, New Jersey To the many ways Americans can honor the remains of the dearly departed - blasting their ashes into space or freezing the remains or simply sealing the body in a coffin, among others - add one more option: mixing the ashes with marine-grade concrete and forming an artificial reef, a home for the fish and coral.

So it was on Tuesday that the mortal remains of Robert Aronson, an avid ocean fisherman; Cecelia Schoppaul, who could watch the surf roll in for hours, and Charles Wehler, who hated swimming but loved the South Jersey shore, joined the decommissioned U.S. Army tanks that already were lowered to the sandy ocean floor off South Jersey,

Their ashes, and those of several others, were mixed with concrete and formed into reef balls, which are hollow concrete shapes with grapefruit-sized holes cut in them. The balls, without human remains, are widely used by coastal states to create fish habitats.

As members of the Aronson, Schoppaul and Wehler families watched from a chartered fishing boat about seven miles, or 11 kilometers, off Atlantic City's casino skyline, the towboat Defiant slowly slid the reef balls over the stern and into 50 feet, or 15 meters, of water. They became part of the Great Egg Reef, one of 14 artificial reefs created by the state.

"I couldn't let go of his ashes they were last physical part of him that I had," said Jamie Wehler of Westminster, Maryland, the widow of Charles Wehler, who died a year ago at 53.

"But when I saw an article about this, there was no question in my mind. I don't believe in strange things happening, but everything about this entire trip has been right for me." Others who had their loved ones ashes cast in reef balls spoke about the same sense of wanting to do something tangible with the ashes, rather than simply storing them on a mantel or scattering them on the sea.

"I have dogs that get on my shelves, and she made me promise that I wouldn't make her sit on my shelf," said Kathy Yard of her mother, Virginia Yard, who died on Christmas Eve in 2000. "So when we read about this in the paper, we were immediately excited. After all, we all come from the sea, and we're all made up of salt water."

The cost of the reef balls was $1,000 to $2,000, plus another $50 for the charter boat rental. The cost can be as much as $5,000 depending on the model.

The idea of adding human ash to commercial reef balls came to Don Brawley of Atlanta when his father expressed a wish to be buried at sea. An accomplished diver, Brawley knew that putting bodies into coastal wasters was illegal. But he also knew of a company, Reef Ball Development Group, that cast reef balls of a patented design for sale to state fisheries departments.

Most states with reef programs buy artificial reefs, said George Frankel, an owner of Eternal Reefs, the Decatur, Georgia, company that he founded with Brawley in 2001. "We like to think that we're buying public reef balls with private money," he said. Since its founding, Eternal Reefs has placed about 200 reef ball memorials, mostly off the Gulf Coast states.

Tuesday's placement, as they call the ceremony, was their farthest north. But the company is eager to begin selling in vacation and resort areas off the mid-Atlantic coast because vacation spots, perhaps like cemeteries, are places that families return to time and again. The company offers three sizes - 400, 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, or 180, 680 and 905 kilograms - costing $1,000 to $5,000, and there are pet models.

The reef balls are cast with most of the weight at the bottom, to provide stability as the hollow design and the structure's holes dissipate energy from currents. The concrete is non-acidic and the surface is roughened and dimpled to encourage coral growth. Brass plaques marking the name and dates of the person being memorialized are included in the price. Eternal Reefs also offers a viewing, a ceremony when family members can make rubbings or write notes in chalk on the smooth interior of the reef ball before it is put in the ocean.

Jessica Yard, 16, wrote, "I will make you proud" in pink chalk on the reef ball with the ashes of her grandmother, Virginia Yard, who had raised her. "Down here, it's very common to scatter someone's ashes on the beach," said Ruth Townsend, a seventh-generation resident of Cape May County and a close friend of Kit Aronson, who had come to bury her husband Robert's ashes in a reef ball, along with those of her sister, Marion Mulligan. "But for Bobby, it wasn't about the beach, it was about the ocean and fishing," Townsend said.

"This man would fish in the snow, and this way, he's part of the sea and part of its renewal." Aronson said her husband died two years ago but she did not even start to think about what to do with her husband's remains until year or more had passed. "I thought we would get my three kids together and we would sprinkle them on the ocean," she said. "But this is doing it in a more identifiable fashion, where the kids can see where he is. Not in a mausoleum or Arlington Cemetery, but outdoors."

The New York Times

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