Stephen Emery pulled himself slowly down the motorboat's anchor chain,
20 feet to the dark bottom of Florida's Sarasota Bay. Above, the choppy
waters had made the two-mile ride bumpy and mucked up the water, but as he
touched bottom the visibility cleared some, and "there it was," he
The anchor had hooked into a hole in a large concrete dome, one of four
settled into the sand, ranging from two to four 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 drunk driver hit his motorcycle, are in one
of those algae-covered concrete domes.
"The growth was phenomenal," said Stephen, 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 be."
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 believe alternative dispositions such as reef burials could change
the face of the burial business.
Last weekend the Cremation Association of North America's two-day
seminar in Las Vegas concluded with a session called "It's Not Your
Grandparents' Funeral." On the agenda, along with aesthetic choices such
as Eternally Yours memorial paintings that blend the deceased's ashes into
watercolors, were 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
"It's a niche type of thing, but the niche is growing," said Jack
Springer, the cremation 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 last month at the Tri-State Crematory in Georgia, cremation
rates are expected to rise steadily and top 50 percent in 25 years. Why?
It costs less, it doesn't waste land, and it's simpler, said Springer.
But disposing of a loved one's ashes provides an opportunity to deal
with death in a more meaningful way, even on Earth-friendly terms. George
Frankel, co-founder of Eternal Reefs, the company that buried Dave Emery's
ashes, said people are beginning to consider the impact their remains will
have on the environment.
"People want to continue making a difference long after their deaths,"
said Frankel. "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, a company created in 1992 by a group of
ecology-conscious diving buddies who wanted to revitalize endangered coral
reefs. Hired primarily by governments, the company has sunk more than
100,000 "reef balls" in 1,500 locations worldwide to build artificial
"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. They mixed his ashes with
concrete, molded it into a reef ball and sank it off Sarasota -- where,
today, it is so overgrown and populated with sea life that it is
unrecognizable as a grave site.
Since then, Eternal Reefs has "deployed" the ashes of nearly 100 people
off Charleston, S.C., and Sarasota, at a cost of $850 to $3,200 each. This
summer it will begin building memorial reefs off Fort Lauderdale and Marco
"We provide a place to go, as you'd have in a cemetery -- except it's
in the water," said Frankel. "Our families say they get beachfront
property for an eternity."
Lynne Bryant discovered the Eternal Reefs Web site when seeking a water
location where she might sink the urn containing her first husband's
ashes. Lee Bryant died from a stroke in 1981, a month after they were
married. "We had intended to sail around the world together," said Bryant,
of League City, Tex. "I knew that Lee wanted to be buried at sea."
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 two miles off Sarasota as Eternal Reefs deployed his remains
in a reef ball as she scattered dried flowers from their wedding on the
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 can enjoy."
Eternal Reefs isn't alone in the notion of going into that good night
while helping the Good Earth. Billy and Kimberley Campbell founded the
nation's first "green burial" nature cemetery in 1996 on land they owned
at Ramsey Creek near Westminster, S.C. Their mission: to provide less
expensive burial options that protect and restore woodlands.
Interment costs about $2,300, less than half the cost of a traditional
funeral. Bodies cannot be embalmed, and caskets must be nontoxic and
biodegradable. No headstones -- only flat markers. Families are encouraged
to be involved, from making the casket to digging the grave. So far, 14
people have been buried there.
"This is the way people used to be buried," and still are in other
cultures, Kimberley Campbell said. Instead of the dust-to-dust
transformation taking centuries due to embalming chemicals, bodies buried
at the Ramsey Creek Memorial Nature Park start renourishing nature faster.
Last month Bonnie Ramey buried her husband, Charles, a Vietnam veteran,
in the plot they bought at the nature park a year ago. "We liked it
because it preserves the land and animals," said Ramey, 49, who lives
three miles away. "That's why we picked it. Pretty soon we're going to run
out of places for the animals to live."
The way Donald Edward Moss II sees it, "we're only here to borrow and
use while we're here, and then return it in as good as shape as possible
when we go."
A Walhalla, S.C., interior designer, Moss is back this week in Oconee
Memorial Hospital, in nearby Seneca, battling metastatic lung cancer. He
has chosen a site at Ramsey Creek where he wants his ashes scattered. "I
want to return to the Earth as soon as possible after I die," said Moss.
"I like the idea of returning to the water and the land to be a nutrient.
We only have so much earth left and I have a grandson who is 2 years
Billy Campbell said that while business at the preserve has been slow,
its Web site (MemorialEcosystems.com) gets 400 to 500 hits per day. He
plans to make the company nonprofit and expand with a 300-acre project in
the Florida Panhandle. "Our dream is that people will come to think of the
preserves as great places to visit, where they can learn about nature, get
married and, oh, yeah, be buried when they die," he said.
Linnea Rogers-Notton read about Ramsey Creek in the Sierra Club
newsletter. "I got very excited," said Rogers-Notton, 67, a Bethesda
native and the founder of People for Preservation, an environmental
advocacy group in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Rogers-Notton chose a burial space with a mountain view. "It's a
philosophical as well as a practical matter to me," she said. "And I like
that for $200 more you can have your burial site restored with native wild
plants so eventually no one will know there was anything there."
Environmental groups are just beginning to embrace the concept. The
December issue of the journal Conservation Biology, in an article titled
"Toxic Burials: The Final Insult," touted the potential for "green" and
reef burials. "Alternatives exist," it said. "Graveyards can be
Greenpeace has been more focused on the burial of nuclear waste. "It's
treading lightly, using as little as possible and putting back -- and, in
that sense, I think you'd see support for it here," Greenpeace spokesman
Craig Culp said. "But I just haven't heard that much about it and don't
know of any campaign on that issue."
Locally, while the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland
Department of Natural Resources are considering using reef balls to
restore the endangered oyster reefs, "we didn't know about the memorial
aspect," said foundation spokesman Dave Slater.
Nonetheless, Eternal Reefs may get its first competitor. Morris
Huggins, a Delray Beach, Fla., contractor, founded SeaRest last October to
encase remains in their urns inside modular concrete cubes that interlock
to become memorial reefs. Huggins, who has yet to obtain state permits,
said clients are "standing in line."
"People today, the way we've changed socially in our thinking, this is
in tune with the times," he said. "People are a little more educated to
the fact that there's got to be a better way."