Flemings choose North Sea as final resting place

Summary

An Ostend-based boat company has seen a huge increase in the numbers of people opting to have their ashes scattered at sea

Rest in peace at sea

Astronaut Neil Armstrong did it. So did Sir Francis Drake, Alfred Hitchcock and Janis Joplin. They were all buried at sea. Armstrong’s ashes were scattered in the Atlantic, Drake ended his days in a lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and the final resting place for Joplin and Hitchcock was the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
And increasingly, people in Flanders are choosing the same route. More and more people are asking to have their ashes scattered in the chilly North Sea off the Flemish coast.
 
Franlis, an Ostend-based company that normally takes day-trippers on sightseeing trips around Zeebrugge harbour, has seen a big increase in demand for its memorial services. So popular has the idea become that the company now performs about 200 ceremonies a year, for individuals or for up to five families at a time.
 
In Belgium, unlike in some countries, relatives are allowed to take a loved one’s ashes home, but, for Franlis owner Michael Seeger, this begs the question: “Just how long would you want a deceased’s ashes sitting in the front room?”
 
Seeger entered the maritime funeral business 12 years ago and his company is thought to be the only one in the area offering such a service. Back then, he oversaw about 10 services a year, but this has gradually risen, and last year’s total represented a 15% increase on the figure for 2012.

Final freedom

“Cremation has, of course, been going on since time immemorial,” he says, “but this type of burial has definitely become more popular. The more traditional forms of ash scattering on grass or storage in urns are often seen as impersonal or unemotional. But a scattering at sea somehow provides a more dignified and touching way of immortalising the deceased’s memory.”

Many families, he continues, “don’t really understand what it means to have one’s ashes scattered at sea. One of the most common reactions we get after a ceremony is that the family now consider the deceased to finally be at peace. Knowing this gives me a great sense of personal satisfaction.”

It’s a view backed by relatives of people whose ashes have been scattered in this way. One woman said her mother had requested a sea service because she had been born into a family of fishermen and loved the ocean. Another man chose it because his late brother had “loved freedom” and it was the sort of funeral he would have wanted. 

A lot of people don’t really understand what it means to have one’s ashes scattered at sea

- Michael Seeger

Scatterings have to be cancelled if the weather isn’t right – too windy, too foggy – but the sunny spring day when I witnessed a service was just about perfect. It begins with the captain’s assistant welcoming the funeral party aboard. The ashes are carried on board in a special soluble urn, while the bosun’s call is played. 

The Belgian flag (it can be another depending on the deceased’s nationality) is hoisted at half-mast on the foredeck before the vessel – a 35-foot refurbished former UK naval ship – chugs out of the West pier at Ostend and heads out about five miles to the open sea.

Once there, the ship’s engines stop and a simple speech is read out, on this occasion with music gently playing in the background. Flowers are scattered, the dozen or so relatives pay their last respects and the ship’s bell is sounded while the urn is slowly lowered into the sea. Within minutes, the ashes start to seep out of the urn and into the relatively calm waters of the North Sea.

The captain sails around the place where the ashes have been scattered and sounds the ship’s horn three times as a last greeting and sign of respect. The flag is raised completely and the vessel makes its way back to Ostend. 

Moving moment

The whole process takes just under 90 minutes. Back on land, the captain gives the family a certificate mentioning the geographic position of the scattering – the final resting place of a much-loved son and husband. It’s a simple, dignified experience.

Seeger recalls a recent sea burial he oversaw of two young Belgian children who were killed in a road accident. The company always tries to respect any special wishes, such as longer sailing times or burials at sundown, he explains. “On this occasion, the parents asked for two white doves to be released into the air immediately after the children’s ashes were scattered into the sea. It was a particularly moving moment.”

The parents asked for two white doves to be released

- Michael Seeger

About 70% of sea cremations carried out by Franlis are for Belgians, usually people with a seafaring background or perhaps simply because they happen to have had an apartment at the coast and felt a bond with the sea. Others have included French, British and even people from the US: generally Belgians who have emigrated to the States but requested that their ashes be scattered back home when they died.

Up to 60 relatives can attend the service on board, unless the ashes of more than one individual are being scattered. If no relatives are present, the crew scatter flowers into the sea with the ashes. One of Seeger’s more unusual ceremonies was for a Vietnamese monk who had a Buddhist burial at sea, something of a rarity even in the Far East.

Easing overcrowding

Franlis ceremonies – which can be given in Dutch, French, English and German – must comply with EU regulations: Burials have to take place at least 500 metres from shore, in fine weather and on a vessel licensed to carry out such tasks.

For Yasmina Youmni, a Franlis employee, freedom is the central theme of scatterings at sea. She believes there is something to be said for not being confined inside an urn or buried in a numbered square in the wall. With burial at sea, there is no grave to visit. But, Youmni says, a watery grave offers the chance of being released into the “infinity of the worldwide seas and oceans”.

In times of economic crisis, financial issues also come into play. The total cost of a Franlis sea burial is €825, which, as one family member says, represents a considerable savings on many other types of burial. Youmni points out that scatterings also mean that relatives don’t have to maintain a grave site.

Belgium is one of Europe’s more densely populated countries and, in some cities, coffin burial space is running out. Franlis now wants to encourage the practice of burial at sea to help ease overcrowding in cemeteries.

An Ostend boat company has seen a huge increase in people opting to have their ashes scattered at sea

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