Stephen Emery pulled himself slowly down the motorboat's anchor
chain, 20 feet to the dark bottom of Florida's Sarasota Bay. Above,
choppy waters had made the 2-mile ride bumpy and mucked up the
water, but as he touched bottom the visibility cleared some, and
"there it was," he recalled.
The anchor had hooked into a hole in a large concrete dome, one
of four settled into the sand, ranging from 2 to 4 feet in diameter.
Together they made an artificial reef, which was so completely
covered by algae, barnacles, soft coral and small sponges that Emery
couldn't find the bronze plaque he was looking for.
The plaque bears his twin brother's name. The cremated remains of
David Emery, who died at 32 when a drunken driver hit his
motorcycle, are in one of those algae-covered concrete domes.
"The growth was phenomenal," said Emery, an environmental
scientist who made his first scuba dive to visit his brother last
Dec. 23. "I felt, hey, this isn't too bad. I was near where Dave is.
He's part of that reef. And I felt that's where he'd want to
Not long ago, people seemed satisfied to bury their dearly
departed in cemetery plots or keep their ashes on the mantel.
But as views of death and dying change, more people are thinking
outside the box.
A growing number think alternative dispositions such as reef
burials could change the face of the burial business.
The Cremation Association of North America's two-day seminar in
Las Vegas recently concluded with a session called "It's Not Your
Grandparents' Funeral," which included memorial paintings by a
company called Eternally Yours that blend the deceased's ashes into
There were also several "green" options: Celebration Forest in
Idaho will plant and care for a memorial tree and scatter the ashes
around its trunk. A "nature preserve" cemetery in South Carolina
buries actual bodies in an ecologically sound way. And people who
love the ocean can choose artificial reefs.
"It's a niche type of thing, but the niche is growing," said Jack
Springer, the association's executive director.
For decades, cremation was the niche. But the percentage of
bodies cremated went from less than 7 percent in 1975 to 25 percent
in 2000 in the United States, according to the association.
Despite the gross abuses discovered in February at Tri-State
Crematory in Noble, Ga., cremation rates are expected to rise
steadily and top 50 percent in 25 years.
But disposing of a loved one's ashes provides an opportunity to
deal with death in a more meaningful way.
George Frankel, co-founder of Eternal Reefs, the company that
buried David Emery's ashes, said people are beginning to consider
the effect their remains will have on the environment.
"People want to continue making a difference long after their
deaths," Frankel said. "They come to the end of their lives
searching more and more for what their contribution was, should've
been or could be. And then they find an option like ours."
Based in Decatur, Ga., Eternal Reefs is a spinoff from the Reef
Ball Development Group, created in 1992 by a group of
ecology-conscious diving buddies who wanted to revitalize endangered
Hired primarily by governments, the company has sunk more than
100,000 "reef balls" in 1,500 locations worldwide to build
"Each reef ball is designed to last 500 years," Frankel said of
the grainy, gray domes that look like giant whiffle ball halves.
Six inches thick and made from marine-grade, pH-neutral concrete,
reef balls range from 400 to 4,000 pounds.
But it wasn't until four years ago, when one partner's dying
father asked to be buried in an artificial reef, that Reef Balls got
into the business of ecologically beneficial burials.
The company mixed his ashes with concrete, molded it into a reef
ball and sank it off Sarasota, where, today, the site is so
overgrown and populated with sea life that it is unrecognizable as a
Since then, Eternal Reefs has "deployed" the ashes of nearly 100
people off Charleston, S.C., and Sarasota, at a cost of $850 to
This summer it will begin building memorial reefs off Fort
Lauderdale and Marco Island, Fla.
"We provide a place to go, as you'd have in a cemetery, except
it's in the water," Frankel said. "Our families say they get
beachfront property for an eternity."
For lovers of the sea
Lynne Bryant discovered the Eternal Reefs Web site when seeking a
water location where she might sink the urn containing her first
Lee Bryant died from a stroke in 1981, a month after they were
"We had intended to sail around the world together," said Bryant,
of League City, Texas. "I knew that Lee wanted to be buried at
Facing state and federal laws that regulate the scattering of
ashes, Bryant kept her husband's ashes for 20 years.
Last June she watched from a rental boat 2 miles off Sarasota as
Eternal Reefs deployed his remains in a reef ball as she scattered
dried flowers from their wedding on the water.
Frankel said state and local governments that normally pay for
reef building have been supportive of the memorial reefs.
"We're helping the people make a contribution to the
environment," he said. "The state gets these reef balls for free.
And these are going to be public and recreational reefs that anyone