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OFFBEAT
By Michael Eidam

Resting with the Fish -- Forever
Eternal Reefs aims to give the ashes of your cremated loved ones a dignified home on the ocean floor in a way that gives back to nature

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Next October, Barbara Jack plans to visit her late husband Lloyd's final resting place to wish him a happy birthday. But she won't be going to a cemetery. She'll travel by boat about two miles off the coast of Sarasota, Fla., and go scuba diving. About 30 feet underwater rests an artificial concrete reef that was cast using Lloyd's ashes. On it is a bronze plaque with his name and a quote capturing his attitude toward life: "No bad days."


It's the work of a company called Eternal Reefs. Co-founder Don Brawley, an avid scuba diver, helped start an artificial-reef making company in 1990, to help rebuild some of the natural reefs he had seen destroyed over time. Eight years later, his father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and raised the idea of having his ashes mixed into one of the concrete structures.

And thus Eternal Reefs was born. Along with partner George Frankel, Brawley has benefited from cremation's increasing popularity and a grassroots outreach campaign designed to shift the way people think about the practice.

MELTING POT.  For anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, families can mix the ashes of their loved ones into a reef ball - a large gumdrop-shaped concrete structure with several holes - that will later become part of a larger reef-building project commissioned by a state or county government.

Sizes range from 400 pounds (the compact "Aquarius" model) to 4,000 pounds (the "Atlantis," which can accommodate up to four sets of remains). The company also offers a "Community Reef," a small ball containing the remains of up to four people, often combined with other balls in a group placement.

Eternal Reefs has placed about 250 memorial reefs thus far and has doubled the number of placements every year for the past four years. And Frankel, the company's CEO, sees more than enough opportunity to continue the pace. According to the Cremation Association of North America, an estimated 35% of people will chose to be cremated by 2010 -- up from 26% in 2000. Surveys show an increasing number of Americans believe cremation is a more cost-effective option that also preserves land.

OFF THE SHELF.  But Eternal Reefs isn't banking future growth on this trend alone. The five-employee company, which works with several partner companies on production, is eyeing another, potentially more lucrative, market as well. "There's a population out there that we call the 'shelf people,'" Frankel says. That's his term for people who have been cremated and now rest in a urn on a loved one's shelf. "Half of our business is from people who have been gone for two years or more."

Eternal Reefs has spotted a need to help people with the awkwardness they feel about caring for someone's ashes -- whether it be the burden of holding onto them or the dilemma of where to scatter them. "We've had families who have gone to scatter the ashes and they can't bring themselves to throw the ashes away," says Frankel. He believes Eternal Reefs helps those families find closure while giving them a lasting way to memorialize their loved one.

Eternal Reefs gets most of its business through word of mouth and some Internet search-engine advertising. But Frankel also hopes to spread more awareness among funeral homes, which get a commission on each referral. According to Frankel, "40% of families that cremate their loved one take the remains home with them, and the funeral home has no idea what they're going to do with them."

ENVIRONMENT-FRIENDLY.  By simply making Eternal Reefs known to families who have chosen cremation, it's a way for the funeral homes -- and Eternal Reefs -- to increase their bottom lines. Frankel also hopes to gain greater exposure through ties with environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation.

The reef balls are designed to last for 500 years and remain firmly in the same spot on the ocean floor. Roughly 80% of their weight is in the lower 40% of their structure, and the holes allow storm energy to dissipate, making the reefs extremely durable.

They're also designed to benefit the ocean. The holes provide sanctuary for small fish, giving them a greater shot at survival, and the pockmarked surface of the balls -- and the fact that they're PH neutral -- allows microorganisms to grow on them right away.

"VESTED INTEREST."  "We want these reefs to be environmental contributions," Frankel says. And he believes, as an added bonus, the projects help instill in families a concern for the ocean. "They have a vested interest in the sea," he says.

Helping the environment was part of the appeal for the Jacks, who would try to make it to the Caribbean once a year. "Lloyd loved the idea of eternal reefs, to be able to give back to the ocean," Barbara says.

Because the artificial reefs can be placed in permitted locations only during specific times, families have to wait for a reef-building project to become available. Lloyd passed away last March, but because he wanted his reef to be placed off the coast of Sarasota, Barbara waited until October when that project took place. "Of the sites that were available, it was the best for snorkeling," she says. Existing locations range from Ocean City, N.J., to South Padre Island, Tex.

STRANGE MIX.  So on Oct. 1, Barbara headed south, and with her own hands mixed Lloyd's cremated remains with the concrete used to cast his reef. Then, after the concrete had about four weeks to cure, she and the other 20 families taking part in the Sarasota project returned to the concrete plant for a memorial service.

The next day the reef balls were taken out into the ocean by barge and lowered into the sea with a crane. Barbara and the other families followed in chartered boats to watch the placements and say their good-byes. When it was over, Eternal Reefs gave her a certificate of the longitude and latitude of the memorial, so she could find her way back.

It makes for a strange mix: part construction project, part memorial service. "We woke up one day and realized we were in the event-planning business," Frankel says. "Neither of us had a background in the death-care industry, so the whole death-care side of this we've had to learn on the fly."

Nevertheless, Barbara says she was touched by how well it went. "Considering these guys are in the construction industry, everybody who worked for them was so in tune with why we were there," she says. No bad days indeed.


Eidam is a contributing consultant to BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Rod Kurtz

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