Tuesday, January 23, 2018

May the Sea Embrace You Tenderly

April 1, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

May the Sea Embrace You

Recently, an avid sailor friend of mine passed over the bar. Shortly thereafter, I received an invitation to gather on the late skipper’s boat with family and friends to celebrate his lifelong passion for boats and the sea. It turned out to be one of the most moving experiences of my life as we shared stories that brought both tears and laughter — the deceased would have loved it.

That experience got me thinking about maritime memorials and burials and discovering what’s involved.  These commemorations can be at any time and place. You don’t need an undertaker, house of worship, casket, or even a body.  Nor do you need a boat, as there are a number of commercial providers throughout Long Island who will take care of all details, including supplying a fully crewed vessel.

A maritime memorial is an opportunity for family and friends to celebrate an individual in an environment of special significance. It’s also a time for storytelling. Who wouldn’t smile at the memory of an old salt who tossed his anchor overboard, forgetting to tie the other end to a cleat, or the moving account of a romantic getaway to a favorite gunkhole?

Laws and regulations vary from state to state and waterway to waterway. For example, New York State has restrictions on where you can scatter ashes, the preferred way for commitment into the sea. The site must be a minimum of three nautical miles from land; flowers and wreaths must be biodegradable. Within 30 days after the scattering, the federal government’s Clean Water Act requires you to file a form with the Environmental Protection Agency (it can be downloaded). Clergy, funeral staff, or government officials are not required to attend.

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard will consider requests for transmittal for veterans on a case-by-case basis via aircraft or ship.

Almost half of those who die in the U.S. each year are now cremated, but different faith groups have customs and traditions ranging from non-acceptance to full participation. If you want religion to be a part of the memorial, it’s best to seek guidance from a trusted spiritual leader (consultation with the deceased while still alive is best to know what her or his preference would be).

Prayers are always in order, often recited by next of kin. An online search will yield spiritual prayers that may be tailored to the occasion; a more secular offering is the poem Sea Fever by John Masefield that begins, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to sail her by.”

My sailing buddy, Nelson Price, was once asked by a friend, dying of cancer, if he would sprinkle his ashes in the ocean. That wasn’t practical as Price sails on Lake Ontario, so he suggested that ashes released into the St. Lawrence River would eventually carry his remains into the Atlantic Ocean.

Price shared his thoughts in his book, Spirit Sail: A Memoir of Spirituality and Sailing:

Barbara, my wife, found several burial-at-sea liturgies and prayers on the internet. I prepared a service to share with his children. His son, Philip, brought his dad’s ashes. We motored out of the harbor and raised sail. It was a thoughtful time. We shared moments of remembrances. The sail of the previous summer had been the highlight for David. I shared sailing episodes. Philip shared some of his relationships with his dad, the tough times and the good ones.

When we got to the huge outlet the St. Lawrence forms in flowing to the sea, the time had come. We had our service and prayer. The ashes were spread into the water. They seemed to hang together for an unusually long time, in greens and blues, then began to disperse. We embraced and held each other for a time. We were saying goodbye to a father and a friend.

I am reminded of the words in the Bible, “Death has lost the battle. Where is its victory? Where is its sting?” A committal at sea can help soften the grieving.

The author is the Division 5 – Staff Officer Public Affairs, First District Southern Region, for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the all-volunteer, non-military arm of the Coast Guard, teaching boating safety education and conducting search and rescue operations. Visit http://cgaux.org/ to join the Auxiliary or for class information.

By William C. Winslow

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