The Navy's full-body burials at sea

What happens if casket doesn't sink

Take the body out past the three-mile limit.
  • Take the body out past the three-mile limit.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Matthew Alice: A friend and I recently got into a conversation about the details of how a sailor or anyone else who dies at sea is “buried. " We remember war movies where a weight of some kind is tied to the dead guy and then his body is put on what looks like a stretcher and the weighted corpse is dropped over the side of the ship. How heavy a weight is required to sink the average human body so that it won't float back up to unnerve living people who might see it? In official Navy and/or nautical parlance, what is such a weight called? Does the Navy's procurement manual provide specifications for these weights? If so, what do these specs say, and how much do the weights cost? How many are carried on board? Where are they made? Can I get one? Finally, where and how is the weight tied to the body, and is the body sent out headfirst or feet first? — David Lewinson and Friend, Del Mar

Speaking of unnerving the living, I’m a bit concerned about the meticulous detail of your inquiry. Not about to make your old pal Matt an accessory to any late-night seagoing felonies, are you? Naturally, once everything hits the fan, your neighbors will be on TV telling us what a nice, quiet guy you were and how you mostly kept to yourself.

You have a slightly quaint picture of contemporary Navy life. Should someone die at sea, even during combat, the body is helicoptered or otherwise removed from the ship and taken to a designated port for family notification and transport home. Sorry, guys.

But the Navy does perform full-body burials at sea for active-duty or retired members of the uniformed services. As you might expect, they spell out the protocols in exquisite bureaucratic detail. It’s in Chapter 8 of a lively document called NAVMEDCOMINST 5360.1. The burial must be done during scheduled ship movement; the Navy won’t fire up a boat just for the burial. A ship’s C.O. can refuse a burial request if he feels it would interfere with the mission for his deployment. One local mortuary held a body for three months waiting for an available, appropriate ship.

But since you seem unnaturally curious about the body-preparation details, here’s a summary of Paragraph 8-5 of the NAVMEDCOMetc. This is handled by a mortuary, not the Navy. To “preclude odorous emissions,” preserve the body to permit 30 days’ storage. Use a metal casket with at least 20 two-inch holes drilled in it, eight in base and lid, two in each end; cover the holes with a porous fabric or paper “to preclude visibility of remains”; loosen the lid on any innerseal casket; secure the casket with at least five 3/4-inch nylon or metal straps. If body and casket together weigh less than 300 pounds, add weights “to assure rapid feet-first submersion.” The type of weight is unspecified. Two local mortuaries said they use bricks or cinderblocks.

Take the body out past the three-mile limit to a site where the ocean depth is greater than 100 fathoms (600 feet). The Navy describes in detail the full-uniform burial service. The next of kin, of course, cannot attend the at-sea burial, but they do receive a letter, photographs, and tape recording that document the event, plus the casket’s flag and spent casings from the rifle salute.

You’ll particularly like Paragraph 8-6(b)(2)(c), which says if the casket does not sink immediately, the C.O. must retrieve it, add more weights (type unspecified), and try again. The paragraph ends with this intriguing all-caps warning: ALL OTHER PROCEDURES TO SINK THE CASKET ARE INAPPROPRIATE.

I have conflicting reports on whether ordinary civilians can be buried at sea. According to the county’s office of vital statistics, which issues death certificates and requires a signed disposition report—the details of how the next of kin plan to dispose of the body —they would only issue documents for full-body burials at sea for qualified military personnel. But there does not seem to be any state law specifically precluding civilian at-sea burials, assuming you could find a boat captain who would cooperate and you followed the EPA’s ocean dumping and permitting regulations. So — happy now, David? Ready to weigh anchor? If the Coast Guard gets you, remember, you never heard of me.

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