- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

Every morning, Sue Rauld Barca used to microwave frozen fish and feed tiny pieces to the birds outside her home. Her husband, Larry, had a similar love for nature and stated in his will that he wanted his ashes scattered in Panama Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

When they died last year, after long illnesses, their families decided to place the Barcas’ ashes in an artificial reef off the coast of Florida. There, they were joined by the ashes of Mrs. Barca’s sister and Mr. Barca’s first wife.

It’s not exactly a traditional burial, but for this family, it made perfect sense.

“If we could put them some place where there are fishes swimming next to them, seashells and other things, birds flying above, they would be absolutely delighted,” said D.C. resident Tibby Ford, Sue’s daughter and Larry’s stepdaughter.

A growing number of companies provide this service, which allows nature-lovers to forever sleep with the fishes.

Two companies, Great Burial Reef and the Neptune Society, opened separate artificial reefs off the coast of Florida this year. Cremated remains can be placed in niches inside the reefs.

A third company, Eternal Reefs Inc. of Atlanta, actually mixes cremated remains with a special concrete to make small “reef balls” to be placed with other reef balls in the ocean. Each ball is between 3 feet and 6 feet in circumference. Eternal Reefs, founded in 1998, plans to place a new batch of reef balls in the Chesapeake Bay this fall.

Both concepts tap into an ocean lover’s desire to become a part of marine ecology after death. The reefs are designed to encourage fish to make homes there or plant life to thrive on them.

“We take, take, take [while living], and the last opportunity people have is to take up a cemetery space that requires watering and trimming for perpetuity,” said Jerry Norman, president and chief executive officer of the Neptune Society. “It’s a chance for people to give something back to the environment when they leave the earth.”

Another appeal of the reef is that it’s an alternative to scattering ashes at sea, which leaves families no way to visit a loved one’s final resting place. Family members often come back and scuba dive to the reefs, said Chuck Kizina, president of Eternal Reefs.

Companies must obtain permits from local authorities before casting their reefs. The Neptune Society obtained a permit for its reef through Miami-Dade County, which regulates 21 artificial reefs off the county’s shores.

The application for the project struck the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management as a bit “morbid,” said Stephen Blair, chief of the restoration and enhancement section, but county regulators were more concerned about how well marine life would adapt to the artificial reef.

“It’s definitely a unique application, but really, to be truthful, we weren’t so concerned about the interment aspects,” Mr. Blair said. “We really looked at it to ensure it was a format that would enhance and encourage the creation of a habitat.”

Each of the reefs is built with special concretedesigned to encourage plant life to grow on it.

The memorial reef industry is still small, said Paul Rahill, environmental adviser of the Cremation Association of North America and president of the cremation division of Matthews International Corp., a Pittsburgh maker of memorials.

“I think it’s something that will definitely grow with time,” Mr. Rahill said. “People who have an affinity for the ocean and the whole reef concept, it’s attractive to them.”

The Neptune Society has spent more than $1 million on its Florida project. “A couple dozen” burial places, which cost between $1,295 and $6,595, have already been sold, Mr. Norman said. As of last month, the reef had six tenants and room for about 125,000 more.

Eternal Reefs has placed nearly 100 reefs off Ocean City and Virginia Beach and in the Chesapeake Bay and another 100 off the coast of New Jersey, Mr. Kizina said. The company also has reef sites off the Carolinas, Texas and Florida.

At Eternal Reefs, families can help mix the ashes with the concrete to form the hollow ball and place their handprints or write messages in the concrete. A bronze plaque is placed on the outside.

All three reef companies invite families to watch as the reefs or remains are lowered into the ocean.

Earlier this month, the Barca family gathered in Sarasota, Fla., to watch Eternal Reefs lower their reef.

“These alternatives are really something that can make a family feel sort of comfortable,” Miss Ford said before she left. “It’s a nice sendoff.”

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