Burial At Sea

The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) which began operating in 2010 and incorporates the work of the Marine and Fisheries Agency is the UK public body with responsibility for supervising burials at sea. The MMO recognises that burials at sea have a long tradition in the UK  considering Great Britain's naval history and remain important particularly to people who have served in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy or have some personal association with the sea.

However, the MMO doesn’t encourage sea burials because of the ‘significant risk’ that due to tides and currents a body may be washed up on the shore or caught up in fishermen’s nets. Instead, they encourage the scattering of ashes at sea following cremation.

Between 2001 and 2013 there were 140 burials at sea off the British coast.

Locations for burials at sea

There are only three places around the English coastline where sea burials are permitted:
1. In the stretch of water between Hastings and Newhaven in Sussex on the south coast;
2. The Needles Spoil Ground, three miles south of the Needles off the west point of the Isle of Wight; and
3. Off Tynemouth in Northumberland


Documentation required

The MMO will need to issue a marine licence https://www.gov.uk/burial-at-sea which is required for all burials at sea. You don’t need a licence or permission to scatter ashes at sea following a cremation. They will want to inspect the following documents:

1. The death certificate

2. A certificate of freedom from fever and infection. The deceased’s GP or the hospital where they died should be able to supply this document and

Possible inspection of body and coffin

The MMO may want to inspect the body and also the coffin. The coffin must be heavily weighted to ensure it remains securely positioned on the sea bed.
Bodies that have been embalmed cannot be buried at sea. This is because the embalming seriously increases the amount of time it takes for the body to decompose. This increases the risk of it being washed up on the shore line.

The Marine Management Organisation can provide further information.

Considerations by the Licensing Authority

In considering whether to issue a licence, the licensing authority is required to have regard to the need to protect the marine environment, the living resources that it supports, human health, and to prevent interference with other legitimate uses of the sea. The authority must also consider the practical availability of any alternative methods of depositing the substance or article. Nevertheless, the licensing authority recognises that burial at sea is a tradition among those who have had a long association with the sea and will issue a licence provided the conditions below are met.

So, having decided that you wish to arrange a burial at sea, you need to:

  • Register the death with the Registrar of Births, Deaths & Marriages
  • Notify the Coroner
  • Prepare the correct documentation
  • Obtain a MMO licence for burial at sea
  • Prepare the body
  • Get the right type of coffin
  • Organise the burial/ceremony

Conditions to be observed

  • Certificate of Freedom from Fever and Infection

Because of the possibility of water-borne infections, a "Certificate of Freedom from Fever and Infection" must be obtained from the deceased General Practitioner or hospital doctor before a licence is issued. If for any reason a doctor is not prepared to issue a Certificate, burial at sea will not be permitted.

  • Removal of Body out of England

The Births and Deaths Registration Act 1926 requires that a body shall not be removed out of England (including Wales) until the expiration of 4 clear days. This certificate must be obtained before a burial at sea may take place.

  • Embalmed Bodies Not Permitted To Be Buried At Sea

Whilst acknowledging that embalming is the established, hygienic and most convenient way of preserving a body before burial, bodies that have been subjected to an embalming process will not be permitted to be buried at sea. This is because embalming substantially delays decomposition of the body tissues, thereby increasing the chance that the body may be returned to shore by tidal currents or being caught in fishing gear, to the distress of all concerned.

  • Acceptable Materials

The body may be lightly clad, commensurate with modesty, in biodegradable material.

Bio-degradable, absorbent padding may be used to absorb any leakage of body fluids.

To ensure that only natural, non-toxic and biodegradable materials enter the marine environment, the coffin and any inner box or liner must be constructed from solid softwood (rather than veneered board or solid hardwood) and must not contain or have fittings made of plastic, lead, copper or zinc.

  • Specifications for the Coffin

The coffin will be subjected to considerable stress when entering the sea and during its descent to the seabed and must be constructed in such a way as to ensure that it will withstand any impact and carry the body to its final resting place. All corners of the coffin should be butt-jointed and strengthened with either mild steel right-angle brackets screwed internally or substantial wooden bracing struts (e.g. 50mm x 38mm).

40 to 50 holes of 50mm (2") should be drilled in the coffin. This allows the rapid ingress of water and exit of air, thereby ensuring that the coffin will sink quickly to the seabed.

To ensure that the body remains on the seabed it is required that approximately 200kg (4cwt) in total of iron, steel or concrete should be clamped to the base of the coffin with brackets of 10mm mild steel bar. Experience has shown that blocks of a weak concrete mix are suitable. The weight should be distributed in such a way that will resist any tendency for the coffin to assume a vertical position.

A system of mild steel banding must be applied to the coffin with 2 bands around the longitudinal axis and bands also at approximately 30cm intervals around the coffin along its length to ensure that it withstands the impact on entry to the sea and deposit on the seabed.

  • Identification

A band of plastic or other durable material should be locked around the neck of the deceased and this band should be either punch-marked or indelibly marked with a telephone number and reference number that would allow the remains to be positively identified should the need arise.

The coffin

This must meet stringent specifications: see Coffin Requirements for Burial at Sea

Contact information

Marine Licensing Team 0300 123 1032 marine.consents@marinemanagement.org.uk

Recommended Reading

This page contains information which may help you if you are considering arranging a burial at sea, if you haven't done so already then we recommend that you also read the article "I buried my father at sea" as told to Alex Pitt, and also from an account sent to the Natural Death Centre. Michelle Crooks' efforts in arranging this funeral won the main Natural Death Centre Award for 1998.

Marine And Fisheries Agency - Burial at sea of human remains

This is a specialist company that deals with sea burials:

lone piper over a the sea at sunset

Britannia Shipping Company
For Burial at Sea Ltd
Unit 3, The Old sawmills,
Hawkerland Road
Collaton Raleigh
Devon EX100 HP
Tel 01395 568652

Cremated Remains

To avoid risks to the environment or distress to families the scattering of cremation ashes is recommended at sea. This can be undertaken without a licence.
There are no specific regulations and no documents that are required to bury or scatter cremated remains at sea. However, there are are some sensible recommendations, if burying a casket containing cremated remains it makes sense to ensure that adequate weights are placed inside it. Also tha sufficient holes are bored to allow the casket to sink. Plastic bags must not be used inside the casket.

One original way of disposing of cremated remains at sea is to place them in an unkilned pot.
When thrown, the pot would need to be twice as thick as normal and the bottom would need to be at least 2" thick to make sure it sinks when placed in the sea.
The cremated remains would the be placed in the unkilned pot and sealed with a lid of the same material. On entry into the water the pot will gradually disintegrate, thus ensuring that the contents are dispersed in a dignified manner.

Naval Burials

The Navy conducts its own burials at sea, for those veterans who wished to be buried at sea. To organise this, or to find out more, you will need to contact the Base Chaplain, via the place from which the deceased served.

From BBC News - November 2006

DNA testing before a burial at sea

There has been discussions about making it mandatory for a DNA test to be taken from bodies before they are buried at sea, in order for remains to be more easily identified if they wash up on shore. Currently this is not a legal requirement.

There are various organisations who offer DNA typing and banking. A DNA sample of the deceased will be evaluated, typed, and stored for 10 or more years in a secured and highly regulated facility. The sample can be taken prior to or after death. This must be done before internment. If a body is cremated DNA testing cannot be done.

Your funeral director should be able to assist in finding a suitable testing facility. Make sure that the selected company follows the Chain of Custody Procedure Guidelines that ensures that all information related to each specific DNA profile is handled correctly and can be used as medical reference or legal evidence.

The genetic sample, taken as a simple swab test, will provide a lasting record of the deceased's genetic health, which family members can use to help with their own health in future. It can help with faster diagnosis and more effective treatment of everything from simple skin disorders to cancer, heart disease, dementia and diabetes. Analysis of the DNA sample could also help with identifying patterns of health risks within families and enable a potential problem to be treated before it is too late. It may also help to estimate the risk of passing conditions to children.

The DNA Memorial provide DNA services for the USA, Canada and the UK.

Pet DNA Testing

DNA Testing can also be done on pets.

Read more here


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