Burial at sea

02 October 2015

If the deceased worked at sea, served in the navy or had a strong association with UK coastal waters - family holidays, a yachting or boating enthusiast, a lifeboat volunteer, perhaps - then they may have expressed a wish for their remains to be buried, or their ashes scattered, at sea.



Scattering ashes at sea

The dispersing of cremated remains at sea – or on rivers - is commonplace. There is no legal obstacle or requirement, other than you should not dispose of the ashes on a privately owned stretch of river without permission. You do not require a government licence.

The remains should be carried in a waterproof urn. However, the ashes must be scattered. You cannot simply place the ashes in the urn into the water.

A number of boat charter companies offer their craft for simple ceremonies for castings ashes onto coastal waters. The craft can vary from a motorised catamaran on the Mersey estuary to a sailboat on the Solent or an offshore powerboat on the Kent coast. River, lake and loch craft are also available throughout the UK.

Costs vary from region to region and, of course, the requirements of the mourners. A ceremony with 11 guests on 25’ working fishing boat off the East Devon coast, for example, starts from £60 and hour, while a 30-minute cruise across Cardiff Bay in an open-topped boat is around £50.

For a list of boat charter services around the country, visit www.scattering-ashes.co.uk/boats And before you scatter the ashes, do check with the skipper which way the wind is blowing.

Burials at sea

There are three designated areas where body burial at sea is permitted:

  • Along the East Sussex coast near Newhaven
  • Off The Needles, located to the west of the Isle of Wight
  • Off Tynemouth, North Tyneside.

Burials of non-cremated remains have very strict regulations and you will require a licence for the burial from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). 

The licence currently costs £175 for a fast-track application and you will have to supply the MMO with the following:

• the death certificate

• a Certificate of Freedom from Fever and Infection (from the deceased’s GP)

• a notice of intention to remove a body out of England (available from the Coroner)

An embalmed body cannot be buried at sea.

When you make you application for a licence, you can propose another coastal site and consideration will be given to this. However, your new site proposal must be detailed and the circumstances/wishes of the deceased should be clearly stated. 

A spokesman for the MMO says, ‘To propose a new site for a burial the applicant will need to provide additional information, such as the name of the area and the coordinates to be used. These applications take more time and work to issue and the MMO will have to assess other factors, such as the tides and distance from the shore, to ensure that that location is suitable for the burial to remain in the sea. 

There is no set distance that a burial must be placed away from the mainland. However the three specific locations available are in appropriate locations so that burials remain within the sea.  ‘If an application is sought for a new location, each application is assessed on a case by case basis and distance from the shore is factor that would be considered. In these situations, we recommend the applicant speaking to the MMO as soon as possible so that specific advice can be offered.’

Coffin specifications for burial at sea

When you receive your licence, it will give required details of the coffin build. These are quite specific to the sea burial and the MMO has the right to inspect the coffin before the ceremony takes place.

The coffin itself and the inner lining must be made from biodegradable material, constructed from solid softwood and to protect against any damage to the environment and marine life contain no plastic, zinc, copper or lead whatsoever. 

It must have holes drilled through it and, most important, be evenly weighted with 200kg (around 440lb) in concrete, steel or iron.

Burial conditions

While inland rivers will be calm, estuaries and open seas are obviously subject to weather and tidal conditions. 

Mourners may be affected by choppy waters and the last thing you need is an outbreak of seasickness at such an emotional time. 

It might be advisable for a service to be held on shore before a small party of mourners board the boat for the burial at sea itself. Numbers are usually limited by the size of the craft, in any case. 

Ensure that the craft you propose to use is capable of carrying and offloading the coffin. This is a most sensitive time, and the event should, aptly enough, call for smooth sailing.

You want to take a wreath(es) to cast onto the sea after the coffin has been let go.

Bear in mind, that bad weather and poor sea conditions can force the cancellation of a boat’s departure at short notice, with all the ramifications.

For further details, visit www.gov.uk/burial-at-sea 

For Northern Ireland, visit www.loughs-agency.org

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.