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Navy: Military sea burial tradition dates to 1400s

Jan. 6, 2014 - 01:32PM   |  
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PITTSBURGH — Robert Beeman won’t have a grave marker or tombstone to honor the memory of his mother, a Navy veteran.

But he could stand on the shore of Virginia Beach and cast his gaze on the Atlantic Ocean, Cheryl L. Beeman’s final resting place.

“Since the time I can remember, all she would say is, ‘I want to be buried at sea.’ I’m OK with that. I know that’s what she wants,” the West Deer man said. “I’ll know what latitude and longitude she was buried at, so anytime I go to the beach, I can say that I’m seeing her.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says about 2,700 Americans were buried at sea each year from 2008 through 2010, the latest figures available. Only about 1 percent of those burials involved a body and casket; the others were cremated remains, or cremains.

Cremains must be deposited in the sea at least 3 miles from shore under EPA regulations. Bodies and caskets must be the same distance from shore and at least 600 feet deep. Caskets must be weighted and drilled with holes to ensure that they sink.

The Navy said it conducted 1,053 sea burials in 2012, and 967 by late December last year. The Navy and Coast Guard, and private companies that perform the service, must report burials to the EPA within 30 days.

Sea burials date to at least the 1400s, the Navy said, as a standard part of Nordic burial rites. The Navy and Coast Guard perform services with full military honors for veterans, including a three-round volley and the playing of “Taps.” They do not charge for the service.

People seek such burials for many reasons, including that “the veteran felt a kinship to the ocean after service,” or the family didn’t pay for a grave site, said Dana Swope, Navy and Marine Corps Mortuary Affairs branch head.

Cheryl Beeman, 67, of West Deer died on Nov. 26. Her body remains in Schellhaas Funeral Home in Bakerstown, awaiting a call from the Navy. After that, the funeral home has two weeks to transport the body to Norfolk before a Navy vessel departs port. The call may not occur for months.

The Navy does not allow families to attend services because the warship usually remains out to sea for six to nine months on deployment.

“I think it’ll be neat that they’re doing (the burial) on an actual maneuver, on a warship,” Robert Beeman said.

The warship will fly the flag that adorned Beeman’s casket for a day and return it to her family. The Navy provides photos of the ceremony and the burial location.

The Coast Guard sometimes allows families to attend a service, though that’s rare, said Chief Petty Officer Jennifer Foley.

Although national statistics for Coast Guard burials were not available, Foley said, the Coast Guard’s District 1, which covers the Northeast, conducts 10 to 20 burials a year.

The Coast Guard allows casket burials only in rare instances, because its vessels are not equipped to hold a coffin in refrigeration.

The EPA sets regulations to avoid problems such as one in September 2010, when a body surfaced near a South Florida beach.

News reports said the family of Scott Lasky, 48, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, honored his dying wish to be buried at sea by placing his body on dry ice, driving from South Carolina to Florida and then riding a boat about 4 miles out from shore before placing his body in the water. Wrappings and weights on the corpse came undone, and a fisherman found the body when it surfaced.

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