Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Death and Burial at Sea. A Watery Grave. Neil Armstrong. Sir Edmund Hillary. Natalie Wood. Robert Maxwell.Thai and Hindu customs. Viking burial

Neil Armstrong,  first man on the moon 1969
Neil Armstrong: burial at sea
Ashes can be scattered from an aeroplane over the sea, whereas the disposal of bodies is possible from a boat. The recent burial at sea, on 14 September, 2012, of U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong by the U.S. Navy into the Atlantic has prompted this article.
Others buried at sea

1596 Sir Francis Drake (lead coffin, possibly in suit of armour) off Panama
1912 Numerous RMS Titanic victims (bodies)
1946 H. G. Wells (ashes) off England) 
1980 Alfred Hitchcock (ashes) Pacific
1980 Steve McQueen (ashes) Pacific
1985 Rock Hudson (ashes)
1993 Vincent Price (ashes) off Malibu, California
1999 John F. Kennedy, Jr. (ashes) Atlantic, off Martha's Vineyard
2008 Sir Edmund Hillary (ashes), off New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf
1962 Adolf Eichmann: Executed and cremated in Israel; (ashes). Understandably, Israel did not want his body in their land.
2011 Osama Bin Laden. Body washed, shrouded and buried according to Muslim rites from an American aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea. Burial at sea was preferred to an earthly grave, which might have become a terrorist shrine.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing were the first climbers known to have reached the top of Mount Everest, in May 1953
When expedient, burial at sea is carried out by navies of all nationalities. A service is usually held by the captain or naval chaplain, according to the religion of the deceased, with naval honours. Ships’ flags are lowered to half-mast. Gunfire and a bugler might be included. Bodies are weighed down, covered with the national flag and slipped over the side, feet first.

Australia is very strict about disposing bodies at sea unless the deceased had a strong connection : permits are difficult to obtain. (Sea Dumping Act 1981) The body must be sewn into a weighted shroud and buried in deep water.

The United States is equally strict: bodies in metal coffins or weighted shrouds have to be buried three and a half miles from land in deep water.

During the Winter of Discontent* in 1978–79 in the UK, a pay freeze and many strikes held by local authority trade unions, it became bitterly cold. Liverpool and Tameside gravediggers from the General and Municipal Workers Union went on an unofficial strike. There were so many unburied bodies a factory had to be hired for extra storage.

Wikipedia tells what happened next with its usual flair:

 “On 1 February a persistent journalist asked the Medical Officer of Health for Liverpool, Dr Duncan Dolton, what would be done if the strike continued for months, Dolton speculated that burial at sea would be considered”.


Needless to say, his words caused panic; the gravediggers gave way and were awarded a huge 14% pay rise – a glorious summer for them.

( *Shakespeare’s Richard III: "Now is the Winter of our Discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York”).

There have always been deaths at sea and in the olden days when someone died they were just tipped over the side. Some people had to walk the plank of course. Nowadays boats of varying size have refrigeration of some kind, and larger boats have morgues, so burial at sea is not such a common practice.


A watery grave nonetheless awaits suicides from a boat, those who are murdered and despatched into the sea, get blown, fall, are pushed or washed overboard by mischance. Some drown when a boat capsizes or sinks, and when planes crash into the sea. In 1983 a helicopter flying between Penzance crashed in fog off St Mary’s in the Scilly Islands with the loss of twenty people. In 2011, one of the six survivors, Lucille Langley-Williams, had her ashes scattered in the water at the scene of the crash. Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris hurtled into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, killing all 228 people on board.
Eileen Gibson
Poor actress Eileen Gibson, 21 was pushed out of her cabin porthole on 18 October, 1947 by steward James Camb, 31, from the Durban Castle off South Africa. 
No-one knows to this day how film star Natalie Wood drowned off the coast of California in 1981, nor about media mogul Robert Maxwell’s drowning from his yacht off the Canary Islands in the Atlantic in 1991.

Flowers and candles in Ganges

A burial custom in Thailand sounds an attractive send-off: ashes are placed in a wreath surrounded by lit candles and floated off from a boat.

Hindus cremate their dead then scatter the ashes in the Ganges or other rivers. They too float flowers and candles.
Viking Funeral
An unusual burial at sea took place In May of this year in Devon, U.K.  Karine Mulcahy, 59, was given a Viking funeral from a fishing boat two miles off Plymouth Sound by her husband Francis. Karine was proud of her Scandinavian origins so after her death and cremation Francis made a three-foot replica longboat from a £120 flat-pack, placed her ashes on board, set it alight with a blow-torch and floated it off from a friend's fishing boat together with friends and family.