Deep Blue Sea

By  |  March 17, 2014
Photograph by Alexis Vasilikos Photograph by Alexis Vasilikos

Right now, dead Americans across the continent are being transformed into diamonds and ink drawings. Floramorial, a company in Illinois, will make you into plant fertilizer so that Aunt Maggie can feed her favorite rosebush for years to come. Another firm, called Celestis, will shoot your ashes into orbit for less than it costs to fly to London. "Today we are opening the space frontier for all of us," announces the website of their partner company, Space Services, Inc. In more than a decade of business, they have flown the cremains of hundreds of people, including James Doohan (that's Scotty of Star Trek fame) and one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, L. Gordon Cooper. After-death experiences marketed toward lifelong passions are way up in the sky and down in the dirt-and they're multiplying.

Although most new memorialization options involve ashes, some do not. Perpetual Pet, a freeze-drying service, "allows pet owners to see, touch and hold their pets . . . and in a sense, 'never have to let go.'" The company's site is filled with photographs from satisfied customers of Persians and pugs-even one lop-eared rabbit-all seated in lifelike poses. There are testimonials, too, like this one for a golden Pomeranian: "If it were not for you, I would never have seen her again. Now I am with her every day. Thank you so much!!" I just can't stop thinking of the extra dimension such a presence would add to one's life, the explanations to visitors, the dusting.

 

Ryan Jackson knew just what he wanted when his time came: old-fashioned burial at sea. They would slide his casket off the side of a ship and drop it into the deep. Ryan, a Floridian, loved the water. He was a Vietnam vet-a Marine-and before that, he had been one of the first and youngest barefoot water-skiers at Busch Gardens. When he died of a heart attack, his widow, Chris, investigated conventional sea burial and discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency has some very strict rules governing such things. It was all a bit more complex than she had anticipated, so when she found the site for Eternal Reefs after a little more Internet research, their offerings struck her as the next-best option.

Eternal Reefs is a company that mixes the cremated ashes of your loved one with a cement compound to create part of an artificial coral reef. The company encourages the bereaved to participate in the creation of the artificial "reef balls," and to oversee their deliverance into the ocean at one of several designated offshore reef beds.

 

I'm not sure what to expect at one of Eternal Reefs' two-day reef ball deployment events, so I dress in a gray, nondescript top, black pants, and pearl earrings, and drive to a fishy-smelling dock at Shem Creek off the Charleston Harbor, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Six families have congregated here beside the Thunderstar, our vessel today; they wear vivid sundresses, shorts and t-shirts, and chat away brightly over bottled water and sodas. Eternal Reefs' staff, including founder and CEO Don Brawley, wear khaki shorts and ironed sea-blue polos bearing the company's logo. Despite the preponderance of dark sunglasses on this sunny, muggy morning, the spirit here is not at all funereal. Instead, far-flung family members greet one another with the warmth of long-awaited reunions. Small children abound and mothers rummage through their purses for baggies of Cheerios, juice boxes, and toys.

There is a tamped-down sense of thrill in the air, the sort brought on by novelty. The hulking objects of this fascination sit in a neat line at the edge of the dock, waiting to be harnessed and lifted aboard a second boat. Each artificial coral reef ball contains the cremated remains of a single person-or, in one case today, of a cat named Mistofeles. Picture large, bell-shaped footrests made from gray cement, two to four feet tall and just as wide. Their surfaces are peppered with holes, like Swiss cheese, and remind me of nothing so much as the trick-or-treater in the Charlie Brown Halloween special who dressed as a ghost but cut too many eyeholes in his sheet. 

Eternal Reefs has chartered two fishing boats. One is loaded with the seven artificial reef balls, and the other, the 110-foot Thunderstar, will carry the families and Brawley. About ten miles out, the boats will rendezvous, and there, the reef balls will join about seventy others on the ocean floor.

That is what is supposed to happen, if everything goes according to plan. Of course, sometimes storms arise and the excursion must be canceled altogether. On other days, the weather appears fine but the current is too rough for the reefs to lower properly. The families have been warned about these possibilities, and, in fact, most of them held traditional funeral services months ago. Removed from the first hard shock of grief, they're in easy conversation now, swapping fishing and diving stories. (Yesterday, the company held a military honors ceremony in a nearby lot owned by a shrimp company to pay respects to the veterans among the deceased. Just after "Taps" was played for the last time, Brawley reminded all present that they could purchase some of the best shrimp in South Carolina right there. It struck me as a strange moment, tonally, but no one else seemed to notice.)

I'm standing next to Bob Allen, one of those hale seniors you know could take you in an arm-wrestling match. He recently lost his wife, Diane. "I'm seventy-two," he tells me. "I met her when I was eleven, so that's sixty-one years ago. We actually grew up together and went to school together. And we were married about fifty-two years. Little over fifty-two. It was an amazing, amazing period." As he says this, he sounds astonished, like he's realizing it all for the first time, and his voice grows hoarse with emotion. He talks about their three children and the places they lived in California, his wife's paintings and the eccentric people who came into their life together because of her love of the arts.

He pauses for a moment, then says, "I mean, it was nothing really complex." A couple of minutes later, he adds, "It was nothing really interesting." Then, after a longer pause, "It was just an extraordinary life." His work as an engineer allowed the couple to travel, and he tells about visiting Denmark in the dead of winter. Tears run freely down his face, but he continues to talk, gesturing as he does. They frequented the ocean and the mountains. They hiked and scuba dived. "And we lived by the ocean the last third of our life." He wipes his cheeks. "Through it all, it's been a remarkable life." Finally, he stops talking, shakes his head, and smiles. It's time to board.

 

The Thunderstar leaves the dock and we're zipping down Shem Creek toward the Atlantic, followed by the boat bearing the reefs. More than one hundred feet in length, our ship looks majestic from the outside, but being a passenger makes me think of something a friend once said about New York City: so vast, so little personal space. There's a covered aft deck and a long cabin lined with booths and tables, atop of which sits another, larger roof deck. There's also a narrow walkway that traverses the perimeter-but as on most sea vessels, each of these spaces, save the roof deck, feels snug.

I head straight to the roof for the stunning view. The blue that surrounds us widens into an unbroken expanse in the morning light. It feels like we're flying. Lesley Cullen and her mother, Penny, are up here too, watching our wake. Lesley's husband, Bill, died last September from a brain tumor. He was, as summarized by Lesley, a building inspector, a skier, a scuba diver, and a master woodworker. He was also a Vietnam vet and a firefighter. But what Bill Cullen was most proud of was his job with the water rescue squad on New Jersey's Passaic River. "He did everything," says Lesley, rapidly chewing her gum. When he died, they had "the big deal fireman's funeral, with bagpipes and everything."

"And that was what Bill wanted," she says, speaking quickly. "But this is what he really, really wanted, I think." Lesley has also scattered or buried Bill's ashes on his favorite Vermont ski run, underneath the apple tree in their backyard, in the Passaic River, and below the window of his building-inspection office ("because he liked to be everywhere"). She wanted to scatter in Jamaica, too, "but I was afraid the airport sniffer dogs might stop me."

 

The families have retreated to the boat's various corners as we zip across the open water. Now the Thunderstar makes little leaps across the waves, and it's a bit of a job to maintain one's balance. Inside the cabin, I steady myself by holding on to the back of one of the booths, and fix my eyes on the horizon out the window. It smells like port-a-potty disinfectant and plastic and salt and fish in here. All these strong sensations-the motor's dull roar, the smell, the jostling-take up a lot of immediate attention and sometimes it's hard to remember why we're all here. Ten minutes ago we were gazing out at the ocean, but then small coolers appeared and people got their food and retreated back to their family groups.

Fifteen minutes later we're slowing, and then we're idling. We've reached a spot that resembles every other spot around us, except that here, forty-five feet below, there is a colony of man-made reefs. About a quarter of a mile behind us is the boat that's carrying the new memorial reef balls.

Bob Allen wends his way toward me, laughing as he grasps at the railing to steady himself. I ask how he's doing. "I'm doing great! I'm doing great," he says, and I believe him. The open sea air seems to have crystallized a hardy vigor in him. The reef deployment will begin shortly, says Don Brawley over the loudspeaker, and people crowd onto the rear deck with cameras and children hanging from their necks.

The Thunderstar bobs in circles. People fall into private conversations, and a few disappear into the air-conditioned cabin while the other boat's crew appears to bustle around with some rigging. Every few minutes, Captain Leary starts up the grumbling motor and maneuvers our drifting vessel back into place. It's beginning to smell like diesel fuel here on the aft deck.

Eventually Brawley gets back on the loudspeaker. "I believe our guys are now ready. Our first memorial reef will be Diane L. Allen." When Brawley repeats her name a second time, it sounds a little like he's paging her. I'm concentrating hard on keeping a chicken biscuit, coffee, and juice in their proper places in my digestive tract as we bob and sway.

We watch as the crew on the other boat lowers Diane's reef ball into the water. It submerges, but then it bobs back up. Everyone tenses as the ball goes down a second time, only to reemerge. Then it happens again. Something has gone very wrong.

All at once, terms like "reef viewing" and "reef dedication" swirl around my brain, divorced from their meanings. My mind tells my body that this is a solemn occasion, but my body doesn't care. It rebels. Quickly, I make my way back to the cabin and gesture toward the paper bags stacked there; a man standing in the doorway hands me one with wordless haste. The sack is comically narrow, and the boat is jostling so much that it seems like trying to use the bag would defeat the purpose, so instead I just head to the other end of the boat from the families and lean out over the side, where, as inconspicuously as possible, I lose my breakfast over a colony of beautiful undersea memorial reefs.

When I return, they're still trying to drop Diane Allen's reef ball. Inside the cabin a number of seasick passengers sit hunched over or sprawled out in the booths, pallid and silent. Diane's ball clunks against the side of the boat, and everyone gasps. Not Bob, though. He is strangely calm, his face a complex map of heightened emotion. Finally, the reef sinks again and the clawlike hooks that held it emerge empty. On the loudspeaker, Brawley announces a successful deployment and people applaud. Bob's family members hug one another and he wipes his eyes. Then he catches my eye and winks. It's bittersweet.

Later, Brawley tells me that the mechanism requires that the line go slack in order to release the reef ball. "In the area where those reefs are, we tend to have some pretty good currents, so that was part of the problem. And then the release mechanism itself got twisted."

The next couple of reef balls go down without a problem, but then the repeated raising and lowering occurs for the following two. Bill Cullen, that jack of so many trades, is one of the last to go, and it takes the crew a long time to send his reef down. I am sitting on a water cooler by the cabin door, holding a cold water bottle across my eyelids when I hear Lesley shout in her quick, birdlike voice, "Budweiser!" Seconds later, there is a small cheer as the ropes emerge from the water empty, Bill's reef placed. Lesley is ecstatic, bouncing by and pulling out her cell phone. "You won't believe it," she tells the person on the other end. "They just lowered his reef, and it was being a pain in the ass. Took, like, twenty minutes! Because it was Bill, being difficult. And then I said, 'Budweiser,' and off it went. Of course!" The final reef, Mistofeles the Cat, sinks beneath the waves without incident.

The day's heat and the boat's pitching, not to mention the see-sawing suspense and relief of the last hour and a half, have all been trying. But something inside my foggy brain insists that grief is supposed to be difficult, no matter what form its rituals take. As we drift, Brawley reads an excerpt from a speech by John F. Kennedy in which he talks about our ocean origins.

All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea-whether it is to sail or to watch it-we are going back from whence we came.

It's a stirring moment, and then it's finished. There's a click and a hiss over the loudspeaker, and then Brawley's voice saying that this concludes today's memorial reef dedication. Less than a minute later, Captain Leary starts up the boat, and we gather speed. We travel fast, faster than on the way out, skimming atop the water headlong into the clean air. A few sickly passengers emerge from the cabin, and the fresh wind evaporates the sweat from their faces. They join others who stand aft, put their arms around one another, and watch the wake we churn up and abandon, which traces a path to their past that is soon obliterated by the rolling, tossing waves.


 From American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning © 2014 by Kate Sweeney. Reprinted by permission of the University of Georgia Press.


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Kate Sweeney lives in Atlanta where she writes and produces public radio stories. Her book American Afterlife, about death and memorialization, was published by University of Georgia Press in 2014.