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.”