Sea Burial

Forty kilometres offshore from the town of Merimbula, on the south coast of NSW is the only Sea Burials Australia site on the east coast of Australia.

British seafarers and especially the British Navy often found it necessary to perform sea burials. Without refrigeration or any practical way to preserve bodies for a traditional land burial, and with the added superstitions surrounding shipboard corpses and hauntings, there was no alternative.

Sailors believed well into the 19th century that sea birds, such as storm petrels or albatross carried the souls of dead sailors, therefore it was extremely unlucky to harm them. They also believed the dead could be angered by a careless disposal.

A sea burial required the body to be stitched into a shroud by the ship’s sail maker with tradition dictating that the last stitch should pass though the corpse’s nose – an action that was thought to revive the merely comatose. It was believed that with out this precaution the body would not “stay down,” regardless of being weighted with shot, but would shake off the trammels of its sailor shroud, and reappear as a ghost to its former shipmates.

Later the dead sailor’s hammock was often used as a shroud, with the body being weighted down with lead shot to ensure it sank properly and did not find its way ashore.

After a short religious service, the body would be committed to the deep;

We therefore commit this body to the deep to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead and the life of the world come…

Burial of Human remains at sea is not common in many jurisdictions. In Australia it is regulated primarily by the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981(Cth)

Under the Act the burial of a body in ‘Australian Waters’ with a permit is allowed:

  • where the body is dumped from any vessel, aircraft or platform; and
  • where the body is dumped from an Australian vessel or Australian aircraft into any part of the sea.

Application for a permit to bury a dead body at sea may be made to the minister. The Minister must either grant or refuse the application within 90 days after the application is made however the process usually takes 3 to 4 working days. Importantly ‘permits are generally only granted to those with a demonstrated connection to the sea, such as long serving navy personnel or fisherman’

Sea burials require the body to be placed in an area where there is no chance the remains will be disturbed, at a depth in excess of 3000 metres; only natural, non-toxic and biodegradable materials must enter the marine environment.

The regulations mean the standard embalming process, and coffin is not allowed. The body is enclosed in a weighted canvas shroud in accordance with the “Ship Captain’s Medical Guide”.

In Australia there are only a handful of burials at sea each year with even the Royal Australian Navy not performing a burial at sea since June 1976.

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