We commit this body to the deep: Burials at sea declining as 'old salts' die off


In Nelson’s navy, it was  a necessity. In modern Britain, it is perhaps more of an emotional impulse. But whatever the motive, burial at sea carries on, just as it has done for hundreds of years.

Since 2001, 140 people have been laid to rest in watery graves off the British coast, many of them former sailors from the Royal Navy or the Merchant Marine, although the numbers appear to be diminishing.

In 2002 there were 21 sea burials: last year there were only four, perhaps because the old salts who served in Second World War convoys, or have similar powerful attachments to the waves, have mostly passed on. But the tradition is still firmly continuing, and there has already been one burial at sea in 2013.

In Nelson’s day they sewed you up in your hammock, with the last stitch through your nose (just in case you were merely unconscious) and a couple of roundshot at your feet (to take you to the bottom).

Today, you go to meet your maker in a sturdy wooden coffin, but it too is heavily weighted down to make sure your last resting place on the seabed remains stable and secure – with everything carefully regulated by the Marine Management Organisation.

There are three designated sea burial sites – marine graveyards, as it were – one off Tynemouth in Northumberland, one off Newhaven in East Sussex, and one three miles south of the Needles, the extreme westerly point of the Isle of Wight, and it is at this last site that the vast majority of sea burials take place.

Virtually all of them are carried out by a specialist Devon-based company, Britannia Shipping, which makes the funeral voyage from the Hampshire ports of Lymington or Keyhaven on chartered cruisers, with the coffin on deck under a flag – a white or red ensign, for the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy, or the Union Jack.

Its managing director, John Lister, has been carrying out sea burials for 25 years and thinks he has presided over about 250 of them. “It just appeals to some people, mainly those who have had a life at sea,” he said. “It’s normally something they have thought about deeply, well before they get to the end of their lives. It’s not a last-minute decision.”

After the coffin is committed to the deep, people typically put wreaths or flowers on the water, and drink a toast to the deceased as the boat circles the area, Mr Lister said.

One typical sea burial Mr Lister carried out was that of former Hertfordshire policeman Fred Barke, who was committed to the deep in January 2011 – after three postponements because of rough weather.

Mr Barke, who was 86, had been in the Royal Navy as a young man during the war, serving on aircraft carriers and destroyers. “He saw plenty of action, and apart from having a few bombs dropped on him, he thoroughly enjoyed it,” his widow, Mrs Rose Barke, said yesterday. “He used to keep saying he wanted to be buried at sea and I thought he was kidding, but when we made a will, he put that in.”

She added: “I had no option to do anything else, but I didn’t regret it, although it’s so different to having a normal funeral. You can only have 12 people on the boat, and we had refreshments, because it was jolly cold.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living