Return to the deep

If you don't fancy having a car park built on your final resting place, and cremation is too mechanical an experience, there is an alternative. The sea, the sea.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's a sunny Saturday morning. Yet the group of nine people walking towards the harbour in the Hampshire fishing village of Keyhaven are dressed in hats and anoraks. At the quayside they climb aboard a small ferry, pausing as they go to glance at a coffin, mounted on the lower deck and draped in a huge Union flag. The boat, its own flag at half mast, moves off through the salt marshes at the edge of the Solent, through a scattering of yacht sails.

The party in anoraks is attending the funeral of Millie Warrender, an 89-year-old Devonian who died the previous week. She had requested that she be buried at sea.

"People choose sea burials for a variety of reasons, often connected to environmental concerns and the filling up of graveyards," says Stephen Charles-Davis, a director of Britannia Shipping Company and conductor of the burial. He thinks that many are repelled by the "dreadful, production- line" atmosphere of urban crematoria, and the anonymous gloom of suburban graveyards. He says there's been a sharp upturn in business over the past few years.

"A lot of our clients don't want to have their graves built over with a car park, or moved," adds his wife Tam, who is a co-director. There is a handful of companies undertaking full sea burials (as opposed to the scattering of ashes, which can be done anywhere, over the side of a rowing boat), and two designated burial sites, both of which are in the English Channel.

Britannia charges pounds 2,880 for the ceremony, which is about pounds 1,000 more than the average cemetery funeral. For that, 12 mourners (the maximum capacity of the ferry) get to travel to the burial spot and watch their loved one disappear into the Channel attended by the ceremony of their choice. They use coffins weighed down with several hundredweight of concrete, and specially reinforced to ensure that they don't break open.

Other precautions are undertaken as standard. "The last thing we want is a mourner slipping and breaking an arm," says Mr Charles-Davis. Similarly, the nightmare prospect of a boatful of mourners falling victim to seasickness means burials take place only in fine weather. And, given that this is the English Channel, things don't always run to schedule, so ceremonies can often be delayed for days while the body lies in a mortuary in Devon. Sometimes, the rescheduled burial will take place without any mourners present at all, though Mr Charles-Davis insists that this is not as grim an outcome as it sounds because relatives will often have already conducted a memorial service in a church.

I have been kindly invited along as a spectator by Mrs Warrender's daughter, and the weather is holding up well. There's a gentle easterly breeze blowing and the sunshine is warm as we sail parallel to the Hampshire coast. The Reverend Aubrey Ridge, wearing full vestments beneath a greatcoat, points out the sights as we go: the Needles, off the Isle of Wight in the distance, and various smugglers' coves. The captain decides to add to the tourist value of the trip by sailing between two of the chalk-stack Needles on his way out to sea, bringing appreciative comments from the mourners.

We're at the far side of the island now. There are sheer, mint-coloured cliffs on one side and a surprisingly smooth open sea on the other.

Using the latest GPS satellite navigation system, the captain locates the burial site, which looks to the landlubber like any old piece of sea, and he cuts the engines.

It is now utterly quiet out here.

The silence is broken by a recording of Elgar's Nimrod, stirring, naval and apt. The vicar reads the committal, a minute-long tribute, amid rising tension. Perhaps the finality of it all is sinking in.

The mourners stare at the coffin as Mr Charles-Davis, who, with his grey beard and lean, weathered face looks as you'd imagine a marine undertaker ought to, reads out Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" in a reverberating tenor. The wind flicks the corners of the flag on the coffin.

When he's finished his reading there's a blur of movement from the pall- bearers and suddenly the coffin slips from under the flag, over the deckrail, and shoots into the water with a deep, violent thud.

It disappears rapidly, leaving a cloud of bubbles. Mrs Turley, Mrs Warrender's daughter, walks slowly over to the railing and stares at the spot, dropping a posy of heather onto it. ("My mother didn't want any complications or fuss," she has told me.) The engines start up and the boat circles the spot twice, while we all watch the purple heather bob up and down until the bubbles stop arriving at the surface. The boat sets off for shore, at a faster pace than seemed the case when we'd come in the opposite direction.

"It was extremely well done," says Mrs Turley over lunch at a pub in Keyhaven afterwards. She said that her mother was a selfless, no-nonsense woman, who wanted her body to be integrated with the world unobtrusively.

Mrs Warrender had worked as a nurse all her life. Her daughter produces a little sheaf of letters: tributes from patients and employers from the Sixties and Seventies, and a few photographs showing a white-haired woman, frail in body but with resolve in her eyes.