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Reef-ball 'burials' aid in restoration of marine habitats


ON THE GULF OF MEXICO -- Twelve-year-old Justin Pierce loved to fish and snorkel before he died in an accident driving an all-terrain vehicle. Now his parents think they've found a way for their son to remain close to the water he loved.

They mixed his ashes with concrete to form an "Eternal Reef" that was placed in the shallow water off Sarasota in late October. Resembling a large concrete wiffle ball, it helps restore a critical underwater habitat while becoming a living memorial with coral and fish.

"In a way, he's still alive," said Justin's mother, Lorna.

The Pierces took part in the growing trend of alternative funerals and memorials. Sarasota has become the largest site for Eternal Reefs, with more than 100 of the underwater memorials, some containing the remains of more than one person. Another 100 reefs are scattered along the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast.

And reefs aren't the only option. Cremated remains can be turned into fireworks, shot into space, turned into diamonds, made into artwork or enclosed in keepsake jewelry.

"What is unappetizing to one person is very much appealing to another," said Jack Springer, executive director of the Chicago-based North American Cremation Association.

The trend of personalizing funeral services is driven, in part, by an increase in cremation. According to Springer, about 687,000 people were cremated in 2003 and that number is expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2025.

"It is expanding the options that are available to families," said Paul Dixon, executive director of the Funeral Ethics Association in Springfield, Ill. "I do think that it appeals to a certain segment of society, but I don't know that it's for everyone."

Roberta Morris, 77, a retiree in nearby Venice, had planned to spread the ashes of her husband at sea, but then she learned about the cremation reefs.

"It's not death," she said. "It's just the most romantic thing to do with your spouse." Her husband, Robert, was an avid fisherman until 15 years ago, when he was disabled with a brain disorder. "He would have loved this," his wife said.

The concrete reefs began as an ecological project, not a funeral service, said founder Don Brawley. He and some friends who are amateur snorkelers developed the so-called "reef balls" to help restore the underwater habitat. Now more than 500,000 reef balls rest on the ocean floor off 48 countries.

In 1998, Brawley's
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Last modified: November 08. 2004 12:00AM