New York Times


Ashes to Ashes, Then Into the Briny Deep

Date: April 9th 2000 | View Article on The NY Times Long Island Journal .:

NEAR the Fire Island Lighthouse, Gus Hald stood on a ledge at the stern of his 43 foot motor yacht Determination, opened a black plastic container and removed a sack of ashes. He stood silently for a moment, then tossed a handful of roses and mums into the sea. Dipping into the bag, he sprinkled the powdery gray cremated human remains into the waters. Then he watched solemnly as they formed an undulating film and slowly drifted with the current. Within moments the ashes were indistinguishable from the waves.

"People move away from Long Island, and that's where they want to spend their eternity, in the water where they were brought up," said Mr. Hald, an arranger of maritime funerals, pouring the last of the six to eight pounds of ashes into the bay. "It's a release into nature."...

...Ten years ago, he turned his love of boating into a business doing burials at sea, strewing remains in the Atlantic Ocean and the Great South Bay. He is authorized to do burials at sea because he has a master sea captain's license.

"We use the lighthouse as the focal point," Mr. Hald said. "One of the problems the industry had was the place to mourn."

As a historical place, the lighthouse provides a permanent monument and perpetual guiding light for those whose loved ones' final sanctuary is the sea. For many, it serves as a tombstone, a place to visit and remember the departed. It is especially appropriate for Long Island mariners who have spent much of their lives on the waters, Mr. Hald said.

"What is the more pleasant place to go to think about a loved one, the cemetery or the beach?" he asked.

In the past two years, the number of burials at sea off Long Island have increased substantially, said Mr. Hald, who has disseminated more than 1,000 cremated remains since he started his Sea Services company a decade ago. After John F. Kennedy Jr.'s remains were scattered off Hyannis Port, Mass., from a naval destroyer last summer, business boomed.

Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, said that cremation rates have risen steadily in the past 25 years to nearly 26 percent of all deaths, because of lower cost, low environmental impact and the simplicity of the process. In New York State, the cremation rate is about 19 percent, with 29,455 cremations in 1998. About 18 percent of cremated remains are scattered on water or land, while 50 percent are taken home or buried. Association surveys predict that in 10 years, 40 percent of all bodies will be cremated.

"People are more transient than they were, " Mr. Hald said. " It used to be everybody stayed in the same place and worked for the phone company for 50 years. Mom and Pop and they had the plot. It's not like that today. People move around more." Mr. Hald attributed much of the expansion of his business to his Web site, "I get a lot of cremated remains from all over of people who once lived here," he said.

Sometimes, Mr. Hald receives the boxes of ashes in the mail and ventures out on the water alone, charging $150 to scatter them. Afterward, he sends a certif icate with the date and latitude and longitude of the scattering to the family. Charters begin at $675 for six passengers.

"It's just like a regular funeral, except instead of going to the cemetery, you go for a burial at sea and then you go to lunch," Mr. Hald said.

As sea scatterings increase in popularity, he said, the scenarios are becoming more flamboyant. A man who was moving overseas asked that his mother's remains be unearthed and sprinkled in the ocean so he would no longer have to worry about maintaining her cemetery plot. When the patriarch of a family died, leaving a stipulation in his will that he be buried in the middle of the Atlantic, the family wanted to book the Queen Elizabeth 2 for the occasion.

"It's almost like doing weddings, these wild requests - that's what funerals are turning into," said Mr. Hald, who did wedding charters on his houseboat before sea burials came into vogue.

For those who literally want to go out with a bang, this spring Mr. Hald is planning his first Grucci-style sendoff. For about $4,000, he will pack the cremated remains into fire-works and float a barge out into the water. The family can watch from a boat or Jones Beach, and choreograph the sendoff to music.

On board, Mr. Hald carries a line of pendants and lockets that can hold a small amount of ashes, geared for those who want to wear their dearly departed close to their hearts.

"The scattering is done for the deceased, the memorialization is done for the living," said Mr. Springer, the association official, noting that keeping a small portion of the cremated remains as a keepsake is often helpful to the bereaved.

Hunters request to have their ashes packed into shotgun shells. Sports fans want theirs seated into footballs or basketballs. Cremated remains are also placed in satellites and launched into space or incorporated in coral reefs. But the tale of the man who wanted his ashes put in a vacuum-cleaner bag so his wife could keep cleaning up after him when he was gone, Mr. Hald said, is a joke, not an option.

Several times Mr. Hald has disposed of cremated remains over the ocean by plane.

According to federal regulations, in the ocean ashes must be scattered at least three miles from shore. The plastic containers cannot be dumped. Whole body burials must take place where the water is at least 600 feet deep. But there are no New York State laws preventing disposal of human ashes in the Great South Bay or even from the edge of a dock. All sea burials are reported to the Environmental Protection Agency. "We don't know who he is, but he obviously loved the water," said Mr. Hald, as the last of the ashes and flowers floated away. "I am handling this person's last request on this earth. I often wonder who they were, what got them here, why they want to be buried at sea. Remember, we are doing what the man wants."

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