​Burial at sea in shallow waters: Only in the Territory

Only a few Australians are buried at sea each year and, when they are, they’re farewelled in deep water where they’re unlikely to float into a shipping lane, wash ashore, or get caught in a fishing net. Not so in the Northern Territory.

While Federal legislation demands bodies be farewelled at depth more than 3,000 metres, the Territory’s designated sea burial site is outside the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction. Located 30 nautical miles from Darwin in the Beagle Gulf, the water depth is only about 60 metres. The area, known as the “North Gutter”, is also well known to the Territory’s keen fishermen. (So fishos, it’s probably a good idea to avoid 12° 05’S 130° 36’E, that is 357° true 18 miles from Charles Point).

“Very few” burials have been approved in the Northern Territory and it’s likely no more will be. The Cemeteries Act is due for a bit of a shake up, with a new Cemeteries Act expected to be enacted in 2018. A position paper titled Outline of a Proposed New Cemeteries Act proposes that sea burials be banned in Northern Territory waters, simply because there are no waters deep enough.

Ministerial approval is needed to be buried at sea and a connection with the ocean needs to be proven.

Burial at sea is a complicated affair. The NT Government has to give permission for a sea burial and, in light of the impending changes to the Act, that’s unlikely. And not everyone can be buried at sea. The person must have had a proven connection with the ocean, eg. they must have been a fisherman or a sailor etc. Just because they spent every sunset watching the sun go down over the water from the Nightcliff foreshore won’t be enough to get Ministerial approval.

Despite Territorians soon not being able to be farewelled in NT waters, sea burial may still be an option though, albeit a long way from Darwin. People can still be buried in Commonwealth waters as long as they Federal Department of Environment has issued a permit under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act.

So can I just push dear ol’ Grandpop off the front of the tinny in his favourite fishing spot?

No. If and when you do get a permit to bury Pop at sea, you’ll need a certified commercial vessel to drop him off at the GPS co-ordinates that are very clear on the permit. While some countries reportedly allow for Pop to be in a weighted coffin with holes drilled in it, Australians are wrapped in a shroud, a heavy cotton or canvas wrap, which has weights sewn into it to make sure Pop sinks quickly and stays in the depths.

Dying at sea

A UK Government publication called the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide is a universally accepted manual for laymen (non-doctors) working on board a ship. Chapter 12 refers to the treatment of “the dying and the dead” on board a ship. It’s a fascinating read but not for the faint-hearted. It gives directions on how to conduct an autopsy and gives advice on the disposal of a body at sea if required under “exceptional circumstances”.

Here’s an excerpt:

“There should be three to four slits or openings in the material to allow the gases of decomposition to escape and prevent flotation due to trapped air…

“If the ship is small and there is heavy sea, precautions must be taken to ensure that the body will not be prematurely lost.”

Preparation and communication.

Burial at sea is just one way to farewell Pop, and it can be tricky.  To make the process easier and to help the chances of successfully getting a permit,  it’s best to prepare while Pop is still alive.  It’s a good idea for Pop’s wishes to be clear,  either in his will or written down in a book like The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action planHaving a clear direction from Pop that can be shown to the Minister may help during the approvals process.  When a surfer died in Western Australia last year, he had left clear directions about what he wanted.  In a moving ceremony he was farewelled by his family 23 nautical miles off the coast of Albany, his shroud weighted with 100 kilograms.

While sea burials are uncommon, with preparation, they can be done. One can only imagine just how special an off-shore ceremony might be. 

 

Lisa Herbert is a former NT journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and light-hearted workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Nancy’s advice and tale of loss: a first-hand account of being left behind to sort ‘things’ out without a will.

As author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, I am privileged to have people share their real, extraordinary, and sometimes confronting and sad stories with me. With permission, here is Nancy’s:

 

“Nothing says love like making sure your end is as happy as your beginning,” says Nancy Walker.

 

In 2013 my beloved husband, Bob, succumbed to oesophageal cancer. While this did not particularly surprise either of us (he had smoked since he was 17 years of age and we received the diagnosis when he was age 72 years), it was the swiftness of his death after diagnosis – one month.

Really, one month is not nearly enough time to get one’s head wrapped around the idea of dying and certainly not the time to be making any decisions.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Each year, as I updated my Will, I would mention to Bob that it might be a good idea for him to get a Will in order.

And each year, dear Bob would say, “I don’t like to think about that, it makes me sad.”

“Do you want to know what sad is,  dear Bob?”

I will tell you what sad is. It is dying intestate (i.e. without a Will), with property in three states, four daughters from a previous marriage who want lots of money, numerous cars (some in his name, some in both our names), and two inconsolable dogs – a Corgi and a Cocker Spaniel, both of whom can look sad even at the best of times and this was nowhere close to a good time.

It is leaving your wife, or your children, or any relative, holding the bag when you die without any directives, without a Will, and without an idea of what you wanted to have happen in the event you go ahead. That, dear man, is sad.

“My life was literally a bad country western song in the making.”

Fortunately Bob had said all along that he wanted to be cremated. That was literally the only thing that went right.  Relatives called asking to come clean out Bob’s things (the day after he died!) and reporting that Bob wanted them to have this or that. A list from Bob would have been ever so handy.

Shortly after Bob died, the Corgi passed away from “broken heart syndrome”, to be followed in short order by the Cocker Spaniel, who in all fairness was 16 years old and had embraced dementia with open paws. My life was literally a bad country western song in the making.

Bob’s estate

It took nine months and more paper than I could ever conceive of to put Bob’s estate to rest, as it were. The four daughters from the previous marriage were shocked not to receive the big payout they had all envisioned, properties were sold, cars re-titled (for enormous sums of money and paper), and boxes of memories shipped off to relatives. By the time it was all done, I was exhausted and everyone in the engineering firm where I work was convinced or at least entertaining the idea that they should have a Will from my mournful whining each day.

 

Nancy and her second husband Matt. Her first husband Bob died in 2013.
Nancy Walker hopes her story can encourage others to prepare a will and communicate their wishes to their family. Her first husband Bob died aged 72 in 2013, leaving behind the difficult job of sorting his estate. Nancy has since remarried to Matt (pictured), a farmer in Oregon. It’s great to see their smiles.

Married again, will preparation, and who gets the stuffed fish?

Fast forward a bit and I have remarried a non-smoking surveyor who farms at night. Whereas Bob could no more talk about death (because that that awful “Will” thing would come up again), Matt can. We have new Wills being drafted and what’s more we have discussed what is in the Wills with his grown children, because no one needs the surprise of being named Executor when dear old Dad expires. And there are lists, attached to the Wills! Yes, that awful stuffed fish with the pine cone in its mouth really is going to the eldest grandchild to remember their dearly departed Gran, and no give backs.

Mum wrote her own obituary

My mother passed away on March 23rd of this year after 93 glorious years. I knew before she went that I would be the Executor and what she wanted to see happen. We wrote her obituary together. The only thing she did not plan for was a remembrance card I sent to her friends and family with a shortened obit and some lovely pictures of mother. She did not want a church service or memorial since she didn’t believe in God and so that ‘closure’ moment was lacking. But for those who remain, the card is a lovely way to keep her close.

She had her death organized down to the last period. Bless her.

Nancy’s plea: “Never assume your loved ones know what you want to happen.”

The gist of this is — if you can be organised enough to get your materials together to do your taxes, you should at least do the same for your death. And especially if it will take a Will to ensure your wishes are carried out. The stress of leaving your grieving partner or child the full-time job of moving your estate through the legal system is a horrible gift. And you certainly do not want to be remembered as that derelict relative who didn’t leave a Will or instructions and the government took half the assets and left the rest to any relatives they could find.

With that in mind, I have purchased six of your books to send to my brothers, my niece, my nephew, as well as my step-son and step-daughter. Nothing says love like making sure your end is as happy as your beginning.

 

Nancy Walker.

 

Nancy and her second husband Matt live on a 30 acre cropping farm in Oregon with 15 cows, 4 cats, 3 dogs and the chickens from across the road. She wrote to me and shared her story after reading an earlier blog of mine (the one about me showing up at the wrong funeral). I am grateful to Nancy for allowing me to share her story in the hope it may help others.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative, practical and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here. (The book can be posted overseas for an additional $6 – contact me for details)