Burials at sea: A voyage to the afterlife


A sea burial, also known as a burial at sea, is a method of disposing of a loved one by committing their body to the ocean. This practice has deep historical, cultural, and religious significance, and continues to be used in local customs today in order to fulfill personal wishes and accommodate tradition as part of naval or military voyages.


Historical, cultural, and religious significance of a sea burial

Sea burials have been practiced for hundreds of years across many cultures. In ancient maritime societies like the Vikings, sea burials were famously conducted and involved setting their warriors’ ships aflame and casting them adrift. This ritual manifested itself as part of the belief of the voyage to the afterlife.

Similarly, ancient Greeks and Romans also sometimes buried their loved ones at sea, especially if they passed away in naval battles or voyages; as it was a way of entrusting their bodies to the gods of the sea. Additionally, among naval and merchant marine communities, sea burials also offered a practical solution to some of the logistical challenges of storing the deceased on long voyages. This practice also holds symbolic meaning, paying homage to the sailor’s life and work at sea.

Sea burials also hold significant religious importance for many people. For example, some religions, like Hinduism, have specific rituals associated with water burials. In some religions, the sea represents an eternal resting place that harmonises with nature, making it a meaningful choice for the deceased’s final journey.


Understanding modern practices and regulations

In today’s world, sea burials are carried out with several legal and environmental guidelines to ensure they are conducted respectfully and sustainably. Different countries across the world have varying regulations, but generally standards include stipulations regarding the distance from shoreline and the depth of water in which the burial can occur.

In the United Kingdom you are required to obtain a marine licence from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) for a burial at sea, when in English waters or Northern Irish offshore waters.1 In the United States, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates sea burials under the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA).

This act stipulates that the body must be buried at least three nautical miles from shore and in waters at least 600 feet deep, though deeper waters may be required in some areas. The body or casket must be prepared to ensure it will sink quickly and remain submerged, often involving weights and biodegradable materials.


International regulations

Understanding the legalities of sea burials involves navigating a complex web of international, national, and local regulations designed to ensure that these ceremonies are conducted respectfully and with a minimal environmental impact. These regulations vary by country and often reflect both cultural practices and environmental concerns.

Internationally, sea burials are primarily governed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN) which is responsible for regulating shipping. The London Convention of 1972 and its 1996 Protocol are key international treaties that oversee the disposal of waste at sea, including human remains.2 Under these agreements, sea burials are permitted, but must adhere to strict guidelines to prevent damage and pollution to the marine environment.


National regulations

Arranging a burial at sea is a complex process that involves careful planning, adherence of several legal requirements, and coordination with various parties to ensure a respectful and compliant ceremony. There are several essential steps and considerations to keep in mind when organising a sea burial.

For example, countries have their own laws governing sea burials, which are typically influenced by international guidelines. It is vital when choosing this option on behalf of yourself, or your loved one, that you understand the procedure and speak to a funeral provider who can best advise you and your family on this process. Local providers will be able to support you on acquiring the relevant permits and documentation, making the process as seamless as possible.


Procedures and permits required for a sea burial

To legally conduct a sea burial, specific procedures and permits are required. In the United States for example, families or funeral homes must notify the EPA within 30 days of the burial. The notification must include details such as the date, location, and depth of the burial.

In the United Kingdom, the deceased or closest relative is required to have provided a DNA consent form, a death certificate, and Notice to a Coroner of Intention to Remove a Body out of England in order to obtain a marine license.3

In other countries, permits must be obtained in advance, and strict records must be kept to ensure compliance with legal requirements and to avoid disappointment.


Understanding military personnel sea burials

Military personnel also often have specific protocols and regulations for sea burials, especially when the deceased has opted to partake in naval traditions. For example, in the United Kingdom, the “burial of bodies at sea is only permitted in exceptional circumstances for senior officers whose services merit special recognition or to holders of the VC who request such a ceremony”.4

However, this practice is more common in the U.S. Sea burials are typically reserved for active-duty members, veterans, and their families, and require coordination with military authorities. Consequently, the Navy and Coast Guard have established procedures for burials at sea, which include specific requirements for the preparation of the body and the conduct of the ceremony.


What is the procedure for being buried at sea?

Whilst sea burials can vary to some degree depending on the country in which you live, the procedure for a sea burial generally begins with the careful preparation of the body. If the deceased opts to use a casket, it must be weighted and perforated to ensure it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Alternatively, the body can also be wrapped in a weighted shroud.

In terms of the ceremony itself can be religious or secular, depending on your wishes, or the wishes of the deceased and their family. Sea burials often mirror a traditional funeral service with prayers, readings, and eulogies. Although, in military contexts this may be different as these sea burials can include specific protocols such as the playing of “Taps,” a gun salute, and the presence of an honor guard.


Environmental considerations

Due to the worsening of global warming, environmental damage and rising sea levels caused by the overconsumption of human kind, sea burials of today must adhere to stringent environmental protection laws. These regulations require the use of biodegradable materials to minimise pollution, damage to sea life, and local ecosystems.

Bodies and caskets must be totally free of non-biodegradable materials such as plastics, which can harm marine biodiversity. Should the deceased wish to be cremated, they can also be scattered at sea. This option is subject to far fewer regulatory constraints and poses much less environmental risk.


How to select an appropriate burial site

Choosing the appropriate burial site is often a hard and a significant step. Considering one’s own mortality is never easy, but once you have decided on a sea burial there are several things you must consider. For example, the site must meet the depth and distance requirements set by the relevant regulatory authority of your native country.

Additionally, you or your loved ones may prefer to opt for locations that have personal or sentimental significance. Regardless, it is essential to verify that the chosen site does not interfere with commercial shipping lanes, fishing areas, or protected marine environments, so as not to avoid last minute disappointment.


Arranging a suitable vessel

If you embark on a sea burial, a suitable vessel is required to transport the body to the desired burial site. Several funeral homes and specialist companies are able to offer funeral services that include a boat charter and a crew familiar with sea burial procedures. During a sea burial, the vessel is required to be equipped to be able to handle the remains of the deceased respectfully and safely. If opting for a military burial, coordination with the appropriate branch of the armed services is necessary to arrange for a military vessel.


Preparation of the body

Unlike a traditional burial, the body must be prepared in a way that ensures it will sink quickly and does not resurface. This typically involves wrapping the body in a biodegradable shroud weighted with ballast.

If the deceased opts for a casket, it should be made of a biodegradable material with holes drilled to allow water entry and weighted to make sure it sinks at the time of burial. This preparation should be done by professionals who understand the specific requirements of sea burials.


How to plan a burial at sea

When planning a burial at sea, it is important first that the deceased decides on whether they wish to have a religious or secular ceremony with any specified rituals to be performed. Once this is decided, you or your loved one can opt to include readings, prayers, music, and military honors if applicable.

The ceremony is normally conducted on the vessel just before the actual burial itself. When embarking on the planning process, it is essential to coordinate with family members and friends who wish to attend, ensuring the vessel can accommodate all participants and upholds the wishes of the deceased.


Post-burial arrangements

After the burial it is also important to address any post-burial arrangements that may be required. This could involve creating a memorial or tribute, notifying the authorities, extended family and friends, and providing grief support resources.

After the burial itself, dependent on which country the procedure takes place, it is important to notify the relevant authorities, for example in the United Kingdom UK this would be the MMO.5

It is also important to notify family and friends of the location, so that those unable to attend the service also have the opportunity to visit the burial site periodically. Thus, keeping accurate records of the location is important to all parties.


What to do if you want a sea burial

If a burial at sea aligns with you, or your loved one’s wishes, it is important to understand that it requires meticulous planning and attention to detail to ensure it meets all the legal standards and respects the wishes of the deceased and their family.

Reaching out to suitable providers can help one to carefully follow all the legal requirements, better helping to guide you so the relevant parties are able prepare the body appropriately, and plan a respectful ceremony, so families can honor their loved ones in a meaningful and compliant manner.

If you or your loved one wishes to find out more you can visit the UK Government website or read this useful article by the BBC.

1,3,5 Government UK, 2024. How to arrange a burial at sea in the UK marine area. Last accessed, May 2024.

2 International Maritime Organisation, 2024. The London Convention and Protocol. Last accessed, May 2024.

4 Royal Navy, 2017. Funeral Honors. Last accessed, May 2024.