I Buried My Father At Sea
Michelle Crooks; as told to Alex Pitt
The Guardian, Saturday 25 July 2009
Also from an account sent to the Natural Death Centre. Michelle Crooks' efforts in arranging this funeral won the main Natural Death Centre Award for 1998.
I buried my father at sea
Michele Crooks organised her father's funeral by hiring a crane, commissioning a carpenter to build a concrete-filled coffin and chartering a boat - because his final wish was for a sea burial. It was a process that brought a curious sense of peace
My father, Peter Hemery, had always said he wanted to be buried at sea. He began his career as a language teacher, then the second world war changed the course of his life for ever. He went into the merchant navy as a radio officer and sailed around the world. He'd never liked teaching, but he fell in love with the sea. And as we grew up, it was just a given - we all knew Dad's wishes.
In those days it had seemed like a romantic notion. Then at the age of 85 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he reminded us again.
At the time, we had no concept of what a sea burial would entail, but as his health deteriorated I became convinced that I wanted to do this for my father. Some people thought I should leave it to the professionals; others told me to ignore my father's wishes and get him cremated.
We still have a Victorian attitude to death - a fear of the inevitable and a tendency towards denial. I decided it was a matter of empowerment. Yes, you're going to die, but how do you want to go? How do you want others to say goodbye? This was my father's choice, his dying wish, and it was my responsibility to see it through.
Initially I phoned three local undertakers and was quoted £7,000-£10,000. My father would not have wanted to spend that much - this was a man who had the same bicycle for 35 years. So I went to the local library and found the Natural Death Handbook, which provided two very useful numbers, one for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the other for Britannia Shipping, a company that handles sea burials.
When I phoned Britannia Shipping, I was quoted £2,800, but that was only for sailing from Keyhaven in Hampshire to the burial site by the Needles Spoil Ground. It still left us with the problem of transporting Dad from Hinckley in Leicestershire to the boat's departure point - about 150 miles.
It was complicated, but as each bit began to slot into place, it started to feel like an incredibly natural thing to do. I was honouring my father and his life, and that was extremely important to me - to make the funeral about his life and not about his death.
As my father was terminally ill, we were able to get the coffin built in advance, which sounds macabre but we had to be pragmatic. I approached a carpenter, Eric Wheatcroft, through a friend. Being an older man himself, he was touched by what we were trying to achieve, and was happy to do something a little unusual.
Defra said the coffin had to be biodegradable - the wood had to be soft wood, the fixings had to rust away, and it had to be heavy - the recommendation was for a quarter of a ton of concrete so it would sink - and there had to be holes drilled in the side.
Once the coffin was finished, our neighbour Alice - whose husband had died about 20 years ago - gave us permission to use her garage to store it.
When my father finally died on 14 February 1998, my mother telephoned me and I drove straight to my parents' house. When I walked into the room, he had been dead less than an hour. When I saw him, it struck me that whatever makes a person a person, however you define that, it had gone. He just wasn't there any more.
My mother and I washed and groomed him. He was still warm, and that was very moving. We attached an engraved aluminium tag, stating my father's name and our solicitor's details just in case he was washed ashore. And then we placed him in a biodegradable body bag that I'd got from a specialist company called Green Undertakings.
It was very emotional; a very private moment. It was the last honouring of the body that had carried my father all his life. To be honest, it would have felt even stranger if somebody else had taken him away and done it.
To get a sea-burial licence from Defra I had to provide three certificates: a death certificate and a medical certificate of freedom of fever and infection, and permission to take the body out of England from the coroner. In the meantime I also had to find a funeral director for storing the body. We could have done it the old-fashioned way and laid the body out in the parlour, but we were concerned about the weather, and keeping him cool - embalming is not allowed for sea burials - so we needed an alternative plan.
We used McCartney's Funeral Services in Hinckley, to store the body. Roy, the funeral director, was fantastic and so professionally curious he asked permission to come on the day. He didn't think he would get another opportunity to witness a sea burial in his funeral career - there are only around 15 sea burials in the UK every year.
Also on recommendation from Defra we decided to additionally weight my father. We didn't want him floating back. It was a practical necessity, and my father was a practical man.
My husband, Alistair, managed to source some degreased chain from a lift company. Then he and my two brothers, Richard and James, the funeral director, Roy, and myself wrapped the chain around the body bag. We cracked a few jokes, to help us cope with the uncomfortable situation we found ourselves in. We then placed him in the coffin and strapped the lid down with metal bands.
Alistair had hired the smallest pick-up truck he could find - a red Daihatsu. He had measured it and checked the weight allowed on it. It was a Sunday evening when we transferred the coffin from the holding table onto the pick-up truck using a board and roller system and covered it with a tarpaulin. We then parked it overnight under a lean-to, beside the funeral director's house, next to an allotment filled with onions and leeks.
The next morning Roy opened up early for us. Alistair drove, with me behind with my mother and children, Jennifer, five, and Christopher, three. We were a strange little convoy, but we managed 70mph along the motorway. My father wouldn't have liked the idea of crawling to his funeral.
We stopped at a service station on the M1 and had a coffee. It did seem a little bizarre. If the police had stopped us, how would we have explained it?
When we got to Keyhaven, the boat and crane were there ready, and everything went like clockwork. We took the tarpaulin off, and the crane lifted the coffin up and onto the boat. My son, fascinated by everything mechanical, loved it. It was like Bob the Builder, lifting Grandad onto a boat. "Wow, fantastic," he gasped.
It took about an hour to sail to the Needles Spoil Ground. It was a cold, dull day and the sea was choppy. After a short service conducted by the vicar from our local church, the coffin was lifted on a board that pivoted about the boats railings. It remained suspended for what felt like ages. We waited anxiously. We'd heard horror stories that sometimes coffins float and need harpooning in order to sink. But, when it did go, it shot off at a tremendous pace - it paused for a second while the water gushed into the holes and then just went like a stone. The force of entry tore the wreath off and left it floating poignantly on the surface.
Just under half the party felt seasick. But only Aunt Nicky actually vomited, which is one of the children's enduring memories. But, even those who had not been at their best agreed it had been a lovely farewell to a wonderful person.
A few months later, Christopher asked: "Mummy, can Grandad swim?"
I said, "Well, he could when he was alive, but he's dead now."
"Oh," he said, and I realised that he was waiting for Grandad to swim back. With the logic of a three-year-old, he'd been thinking "I haven't seen Grandad for a long time." It was his first understanding that sometimes an adult can go away and not come back.
Although we don't have a fixed point to return to, the sea itself will always now be symbolic and special to me. It was a lovely goodbye and I have beautiful memories that will last a lifetime.