Funerals & Memorials At Sea: Honouring the Dead In Different Cultures
Posted by Myrna West on
Both memorials and burials at sea have a long and storied history, spread across many cultures in many countries over thousands of years. Water is often associated with the origin of life, and no body of water is as large as the ocean. Many individuals have a personal connection with the ocean that they would like to see honoured upon their death. Some equate the empty expanse of the sea with freedom of the spirit. Others assign a religious significance to water in their burial traditions.
Memorials hold a position of importance in many funerary practices, and can serve as a method of closure for loved ones even when no remains of the deceased are available. Sea memorials especially have the benefit of quiet and solitude, allowing for mourning in privacy under the wide sky, away from the noise of civilization.
What Is A Sea Memorial?
Like the name suggests, a sea memorial is a funerary service held on a boat or other vessel out at sea. Most sea memorials take place some distance from the shore and involve a religious or personal service, the scattering of wreaths or flowers on the water, and individual speeches or tributes. Small candles may also be lit, and food may be provided. Often the vessel will circle around the site for a final farewell before returning to land. Upon request, the captain can provide longitude and latitude coordinates of the site for return visits or anniversary memorials in the future.
Of course, every memorial is different and the details are at the discretion of the organizers. At Fantasea Charters we can put you in touch with any number of services that you might need: from florists and catering to musicians and photographers.
A traditional Maritime Farewell for members of the navy is the service we see the most often, but there are many religions that allow or even encourage a memorial on the ocean. If you're considering a religious sea memorial, take a look at the information below and refer to your preferred religious advisor if you have any questions.
In the Buddhist faith, it's traditional for those who have passed to be cremated and placed in a final resting place that can be visited for memorial and ancestor rites. Details and the strictness of traditions may vary between different branches of Buddhism: Zen, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Theravada, Tibetan, Shinnyo-en, and so on. In Thailand specifically, mourning wreaths with lit candles are traditionally floated out to sea from a vessel.
In many Buddhist schools, prayers and mantras are recited up to and at the moment of death, during preparation of the body, and for several days or weeks afterwards — until the spirit is believed to have reborn into a new life. These may be performed privately, as part of a service, or both.
The Roman Catholic Church officially believes it's improper for a person to be buried at sea or have their ashes scattered if there are any other alternatives, but there can be differing opinions within the Church and between priests. Either way, the Catholic Church does encourage customs that help family and friends heal and find closure.
Mourners are expected to visit the deceased in a holy space where they can offer prayers, commune with others who have passed, and reflect on the eventual resurrection of their own bodies. In situations where the burial place can't be visited (for example, when it's in another country), memorials may take place wherever the mourners feel a close connection to both God and the deceased — which can sometimes be on or across the ocean.
In Hindu funerals, the deceased is cremated and the remains immersed in a running body of water (usually the Ganges River, if possible). Rites vary between families, but common customs include wearing simple white clothes, reciting prayers and hymns, and sending flowers. After 13 days of mourning, the family often holds a feast to celebrate the departed's soul reaching the land of the ancestors, which is repeated every year as a memorial tradition.
Sacred Islamic texts recommend burial on land if at all possible, facing the direction of Mecca. The family of the deceased is expected to quietly and respectfully mourn for 3-40 days, wearing black while receiving visitors and well-wishers. Friends and guests are encouraged to bring food during the mourning period to help provide for the family.
Jewish law states that seven types of family members are expected to observe seven days of mourning after the funeral: mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, and husband or wife. Customs vary between orthodox and modern tradition, but restrictions are often placed upon the mourning family, and the Kaddish prayer is recited for the deceased every day for 30 days (11 months for parents).
Memorial services are often personalized, with expressions of grief and memories of the deceased shared by friends and family.
Protestantism is the second largest form of Christianity and takes the form of a number of denominational families such as Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Calvinists, Baptists, and more. Each may have their own beliefs and/or traditions regarding honouring the dead at sea, including specific prayers and consecrated areas in the ocean. In general, prayers are meant for the comfort of the living, and a “thanksgiving” ceremony may be held where friends and family speak about the deceased.
Similar to Hindu funeral practices, Sikhism recommends the cremation of those who have passed, and the distribution of the ashes in a running body of water. Loud public displays of emotion are discouraged, and guests at a memorial service are expected to dress modestly in neutral colours (white, blue, black, etc.) and cover their hair as a sign of respect. Smoking or consuming alcohol at a funeral or memorial service is prohibited.
Other memorial traditions include celebrating the life of the deceased by sharing happy memories, offering flowers, and making donations to charity. Anyone attending can recite prayers or hymns for the family and the departed, and reading of the Guru Granth Sahib will often take place. A meal will be shared with all guests.
One year after the death, families will often gather to remember the deceased with prayers and a shared meal.