Beyond the Grave: Death Gets More Interesting

Beyond the Grave: Death Gets More Interesting

Going six feet under is just so passé.

A new underwater memorial reef set to open off the coast of Florida is part of an emerging trend for offbeat burials, sending people to new frontiers after they die, from outer space down to the ocean floor.

The man-made reef—the world's largest—will offer room for the remains of up to 125,000 individuals, said Jerry Norman, CEO of The Neptune Society, the group responsible for creating the revolutionary resting place.

"The Neptune Memorial Reef provides a natural setting for loved ones that is also a awe-inspiring destination where family can gather and enjoy," Norman said.

Unique demands

The Neptune Memorial Reef is a response to the demand for more unique alternatives to traditional burial practice, said Norman, whose Neptune Society is the sole cremation-only funerary service in the U.S.

"We live in a more mobile society and one that is moving away from traditional services," Norman said.

Covering an area of 16 acres just more than 3 miles off the coast of Miami, the reef is a whimsical re-creation of a lost city, complete with columns, roads and city gates. Individuals who choose an interment there—The Neptune Society calls it a "placement"—are cremated and placed in various parts of the structure. A simple placement costs about $1,500, while a spot inside the body of a majestic bronze lion runs the price up by several thousand dollars.

Underwater burials are offered by several other companies, such as Georgia-based Eternal Reefs, but differ in that the reefs are small, individual pods created for each individual on-demand and then sunk to the ocean floor.

Space is the final frontier

For just $1,300, you can alternately choose to send a small capsule of your cremated remains into orbit.

Space burials are currently offered by one company, Celestis, who include the remains as a secondary payload, usually along with commercial satellite launches.

The late Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek," and the eccentric author Timothy Leary made the trip on the same rocket flight in 1997.

A portion of the ashes of Star Trek's "Scotty," actor James Doohan, along with Mercury astronaut L. Gordon Cooper Jr. were sent into space in April 2007 on a suborbital flight. More of their remains will be included in a flight scheduled for 2008 that's intended to go into orbit. 

Behind the phenomenon

Like many modern burial alternatives, including the simple "green" cemeteries popping up across the U.S, reef and space burials appeal mostly to environmentally conscious baby boomers who want to minimize their impact on the earth, said Mark Harris, author of "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial" (Scribner, 2007).

Reef burials play into the idea of giving back in death some of the resources you took from the earth in life, said Harris, who witnessed the explosion of marine life on reef balls dropped into the Atlantic by Eternal Reefs.

"The memorial reefs the Georgia company cast into southern waters of the U.S. were clearly no mere watery tombs; here the remains of the dead literally lay the foundation for new life under the sea," wrote Harris.

The Neptune Memorial Reef is also expected to attract a variety of tropical fish and promote coral growth. Scuba divers will come to study the reef as a marine research site, according to The Neptune Society. For their part, space burials promote cremation and the remains that aren't sent into space are scattered at sea.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.