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Become one with the ocean after you die

A scuba diver explores a well-established manmade coral reef

Coral growing from a reef ball, creating a vital underwater eco-system. All photos courtesy of Eternal Reefs, www.eternalreefs.com, and the Reef Ball Foundation, www.reefball.org.

The phrase ‘watery grave’ may be taking on a new, more positive meaning. If you’re looking for a special way to be remembered, new innovations are allowing you to become part of ocean life after death.

Increasingly, people are looking for meaningful ways to be laid to rest after they die. Whether it’s opting for a natural burial, having ashes made into diamonds, or being launched into space, it seems that the demand for unusual alternatives to traditional burial and creative use of ashes is only increasing.

While ‘burial at sea’ is an ancient idea, there’s a new way to become part of the ocean that could actually save marine life and preserve precious coral reefs.

A scuba diver inspects coral growing from a reef ball Beautiful natural coral grows from a reef ball, providing a perfect habitat for all kinds of sea life.

Scientists estimate that up to nine million species of plants and animals rely on coral reefs to survive, either as a place to live, hunt or breed. However, in recent years, marine biologists have been desperately trying to save natural coral reefs around the world, which are under threat from overfishing, pollution and climate change. Already a quarter of the world’s reefs are considered damaged beyond repair, with two thirds of those remaining considered under threat.

One company tackling this issue is Sarasota-based Eternals Reefs. They combine cremation ashes into artificial concrete reefs, giving people a way to become one with the vibrant underwater life that thrives on coral reefs.

A boat with a crane lowers reef balls into the sea Reef balls are carefully placed in specific ocean locations to cultivate new coral reefs.

The reef ball was designed as a strong artificial base to grow man-made reefs, mimicking nature’s design as closely as possible. The ball is made from environmentally-safe cast concrete, with a rough textured surface to encourage marine microorganisms to take hold and begin cultivating life. Once these tiny organisms are established, the artificial reef will begin to flourish with life, including natural corals, crustaceans and fish.

Don Brawley, one of the co-founders of the company, realized that reef balls could be more than just a groundbreaking eco-innovation when his father-in-law, Carleton Glen Palmer, talked about having his cremated remains put in a reef. Soon afterwards his father-in-law passed away, and Don made the first memorial reef ball. It was placed in the Gulf of Mexico and is now home to thousands of colorful sea creatures.

Three children place flowers on a memorial reef ball Families can view and decorate the memorial reef ball before it is placed on the ocean bed.

Since 1998, Eternal Reefs has placed over 1,500 memorial reef balls off the coast of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas and Virginia, giving new life to the ocean.

The process of creating a memorial reef ball involves casting the eco-friendly concrete and incorporating cremation ashes. Families are invited to attend and be as involved as they’d like in the casting and viewing of the finished reef ball. Many choose to put handprints and other memorabilia in the damp concrete and make rubbings of the memorial plaque and even write messages on their loved one’s Eternal Reef with chalk.

Families can also be present for a dedication ceremony to observe their loved one's memorial reef ball being placed.

The family can also board a boat and watch as their loved one’s reef ball is placed in the ocean. They watch as the concrete dome is lowered into the water, where it will find its place forever on the seabed. Designed to withstand tidal currents and powerful ocean storms, the Eternal Reef is quickly populated by underwater inhabitants and can have meaningful growth in as little as three months. After the reef ball is placed, families cast flowers into the sea and say their final goodbyes.