Time-Honored Traditions: Burial at Sea
There are moments in the careers of U.S. Navy Sailors when they become part of something so moving, so sacred, that it imprints upon them forever. Helping say goodbye and putting to rest a shipmate, or their family members, during a burial ceremony is the epitome of such solemn moments; hearts weigh heavy with pride, sorrow, love and respect, whether they had a personal connection to deceased or not.
While many sea service members are buried in traditional funerals ashore, some families choose to show their respects through an at sea disposition, or burial, where the deceased’s intact body or cremated remains are committed to the ocean from the deck of a Navy vessel.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, burials at sea date back to ancient times and have been practiced for as long as people have set sail upon the seas. In these early times, the deceased was sewn into a weighted shroud, like heavy sailcloth, and in a very old custom, the last stitch was put through their nose. Once wrapped, and usually accompanied by an appropriate religious ceremony, the body was slid over the side of the vessel.
Today, eligibility for burial at sea is afforded to active duty service members, honorably discharged retirees, veterans, U.S. civilian marine personnel of the Military Sealift Command, and dependent family members of active duty, retirees, and veterans.
Although family members are unable to share the closing moments due to the ceremony taking place on operationally deployed ships, burials at sea performed on our Surface Force ships share many of the same elements found in funerals held ashore – ceremony participants usually wear their finest dress uniforms, fire three volleys, read eulogies and play taps in honor of the deceased. If requested, cremated remains are scattered into the sea. Otherwise, the casket or urn is gently slid overboard. Flowers or wreathes may also be tossed into the sea during the observance.
Shortly following the ceremony, the commanding officer of the ship will mail the next of kin a letter detailing the date and time of the ceremony, accompanied by any photographs or video of the committal, a commemorative flag (if applicable) and a chart showing the navigational location where the deceased was laid to rest.
John F. Kennedy once said, “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”
It’s no wonder that the pull of the sea remains eternal and some desire it as their final resting place.
For the Sailors participating in this solemn tradition, laying shipmates (or their loved ones) to rest in the great blue sea is one of the highest acts they can provide as a final offering of honor for the deceased.