03 February 2011


Seems to me that minus the embalming chemicals and coffins, burial at sea is a sensible solution to our current conundrum of more people, fewer cemeteries, dwindling land availability, and increasing air pollution and mercury contamination (think dental fillings) from cremations. 

Why not—if we so desire—let our bodies go unclothed into the deep, to feed a foodweb running short of big bodies?

Or if you'd rather commit your ashes to Davy Jones Locker, how about via The Shell (above)—from Lots Design of Sweden—a biodegradeable paper urn? Submarine to the great beyond.

Another solution is offered by Hong Kong architect Tin Shun But. His Columbarium at Sea is a concept for a floating mausoleum designed for the storage of funerary urns. Or you could visit for the purpose of scattering ashes offshore.

From Arch Daily:
The columbarium is about a journey from the land to the floating resting ground, which represents the transformation of the human body into ashes. A place of collective memories, the ashes of the deceased are scattered or buried in urns. "The goal is to create an experience of 'moving on to the next'—a synthesis between horizon and the datum of the ocean celebrating the lives that are buried in this space or scattered in the sea," explained the designer.

Would make a great scifi set.

(All images from Arch Daily. More here.)

The Norse, or Vikings, performed burials at sea in the course of their long oceanic voyages. 

They also buried great kings and chieftains ashore in their own ships. A few of these ship burials have been located, excavated, and restored over the years.

Hard to imagine anything more beautiful than the sleek lines of these ancient vessels.

(Top two images: Excavation c.1904 and restoration of Norway's Oseberg ship. Bottom two: Excavation c.1880 and restoration of Norway's Gokstad ship. All courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

In The Rusiyyah, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab travel writer, witnessed a Viking ship burial/cremation. His tale is surely one of the more hair-raising accounts ever committed to the written word, complete with a description of a Norse version of suttee.

Here's a snippet, translated by James E. Montgomery:

When their chieftain dies, his family ask his slave-girls and slave-boys, "Who among you will die with him?" and some of them reply, "I shall." Having said this, it becomes incumbent upon the person and it is impossible ever to turn back. Should that person try to, he is not permitted to do so. It is usually slave-girls who make this offer. 
When that man whom I mentioned earlier died, they said to his slave-girls, "Who will die with him?" and one of them said, "I shall." So they placed two slave-girls in charge of her to take care of her and accompany her wherever she went, even to the point of occasionally washing her feet with their own hands. They set about attending to the dead man, preparing his clothes for him and setting right all he needed. Every day the slave-girl would drink and would sing merrily and cheerfully.

On the day when he and the slave-girl were to be burned I arrived at the river where his ship was. To my surprise I discovered that it had been beached and that four planks of birch (khadank) and other types of wood had been erected for it. Around them wood had been placed in such a way as to resemble scaffolding (anābīr). Then the ship was hauled and placed on top of this wood. They advanced, going to and fro uttering words which I did not understand, while he was still in his grave and had not been exhumed.

Then they produced a couch and placed it on the ship, covering it with quilts Byzantine silk brocade and cushions Byzantine silk brocade. Then a crone arrived whom they called the "Angel of Death" and she spread on the couch the coverings we have mentioned. She is responsible for having his sewn up and putting him in order and it is she who kills the slave-girls. I myself saw her: a gloomy, corpulent woman, neither young nor old.

When they came to his grave, they removed the soil from the wood and then removed the wood, exhuming him in the izār in which he had died. I could see that he had turned black because of the coldness of the ground. They had also placed alcohol, fruit and a pandora (ṭunbūr) beside him in the grave, all of which they took out. Surprisingly, he had not begun to stink and only his colour had deteriorated. They clothed him in trousers, leggings (rān), boots, a qurṭaq, and a silk caftan with golden buttons, and placed a silk qalansuwwah with sable on his head. They carried him inside the pavilion on the ship and laid him to rest on the quilt, propping him with cushions...

 It gets gory. You can read on here.

(Ship burial of Igor the Old in 945. Henryk Siemiradzki, 1843-1902.)

A much better idea, seems to me, is the divers' take on a ship burial offered by Eternal Reefs. Cast your cremains into a concrete artificial reef. Then sink it offshore for marine life to colonize.

In no time at all, corals and other invertebrates will happily adhere to your hereafter.

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