The Star, “The People’s Paper” Malaysia
April 11, 2002 No. 154621



While it’s common to bury the dearly departed in cemetery plots or keep their ashes in a columbarium, views of death and dying are changing and more people are thinking outside the box reports DON OLDENBURG.

Cremated remains are incorporated in concrete reef balls to make artificial reefs.  Alternative dispositions such as reef burials could change the face of the burial business.

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 recalled.

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.

A company called Eternal Reefs (www.eternalreefs.com) sinks reef balls which include the cremated remains of a loved one, in approved ocean locations to provide the foundation for a coral reef.  "We provide a place to go to, as you'd have in a cemetery, except it's in the water," says a company co-founder

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 artificial reefs.

"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 reefs.

"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 Island, Fla.

"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 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 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 old."

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 ecologically significant."

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." -LAT-WP