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
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
Man taking selfie in front of car
health
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore