Burning Ship Burials Or Floating Funeral Pyres, Is It Legal?


There is something deeply romantic about the image of a lord or lady being cremated while floating away across the ocean, perhaps ignited by a well-aimed arrow. If you are hoping to go out of this world in a mixture of fire and water, what are you chances?

In the United States, the intentional burning of a ship or funeral pyre on the ocean or inland water system is illegal. Human remains can be disposed of in the sea within certain circumstances, but sea cremation is not permitted. All craft disposing of human remains must return to land afterward.

Although you may not be able to have the cinematic funeral you may have envisaged, there are other ways to commend your earthly remains to the deep. To find out more, why not continue reading the rest of the article.

Floating Funeral Pyre

Can you be buried at sea?

Burial at sea is entirely legal under US law but is regulated. The body needs to be encased in a submergible casket or shroud and needs to be laid to rest at least 3 nautical miles from the coast and between 600 and 1,900 feet deep. Burials require a permit and needs to be reported to the EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the government office that regulates sea burials. In all American coastal waters, the Clean Water Act dictates that bodies cannot be buried at sea too close to the coast (less than 3 nautical miles) and in some places, particularly Florida and Mississipi, not less than 1,800 feet deep.

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Most harbors have a company or individual who can be hired to transport a funeral party to a sanctioned area for sea burials. With a General Permit from the EPA, you can even carry out the burial yourself with your own craft.

It is recommended not to dump any non-organic material into the ocean and to make sure that the body is weighted down with at least 300 pounds in order to encourage it to sink properly. When using a casket, you should also drill a number of 2 inch holes in order to encourage speedy sinking of the casket.

Can you scatter ashes at sea?

Under the same rules that allow you to bury remains at sea, you can scatter ashes on the ocean too. According to the EPA, this also has to be done far enough from the coast not to interfere with the quality of coastal water.

scattering ashes at sea

The same boats which can be hired for a burial at sea can also be hired to help you scatter ashes in the legally sanctioned points around the US coast. Planning this event as part of a funeral normally costs in the region of $800, but may vary in some states.

If you wish to scatter ashes at sea but cannot physically be there to do it, there are also companies that offer this service. the ashes are given to a ship’s company who perform the ceremony on your behalf in the permitted place.

Another great option is to get the ashes made into a permanent piece of jewelry, you should check out the beautiful handcrafted pieces Mark Hamilton makes with cremains by visiting his site here.

Can you have an open-air funeral pyre?

Funeral pyres have never been popular in the USA and remain illegal to this day. The one exception is currently in Crestone in Colorado where local residents can be cremated in the open air. All other US cremations must be carried out indoors by a certified technician.

Titan Caskets

For most of US history, both pre and post-colonization by European settlers, funeral pyres were not the common method to dispose of the dead. Native Americans and Europeans favored burial, but with different rituals. There may have been some immigrants who came from cultures who did cremate their dead in the open, but this type of ritual has been illegal for a long time now.

The USA, like many modern nations, has very strict rules about who can and cannot carry out a cremation and improper disposal of human remains is a crime that can be punished with up to a decade in jail and a 5 thousand dollar fine.

Can you scatter ashes on a river or lake?

The Clean Water Act is predominantly about the oceans, but in some states, it does also covers rivers and lakes. Whereas burials in rivers and lakes are certainly illegal, scattering ashes may not be. It’s necessary to contact your local health or environmental agency to verify your local statutes and learn if you can scatter ashes on inland waterways or not.

There are conflicting rules about scattering ashes on beaches for example. The EPA doesn’t permit scattering ashes directly on the sand or into the sea but you can dig a trench near the shore and allow the ashes to be carried away over time. Find out more in my full article here.

Do human ashes float or sink?

Cremated ashes will sink when scattered over the ocean. This will happen more quickly when they are carried off and spread by the wind. When poured directly into the sea, there will be some clumping and floating material before the waves disperse the remains.

Water Soluble Urn (Floating ashes burial)

Link to Amazon

One way to make sure that the ashes sink directly is to use a soluble urn which, over the course of a few minutes, will dissolve and drag the ashes down beneath the waves. This can be a good solution if you plan to give a eulogy or say a prayer as the ashes are commended to the deep.

Can you be buried in a ship like a Viking?

Viking burials, if you know your history, came in all types but the ones that stick in the modern imagination are the ship cremations (think Charlton Heston) and the ship burials ( think Sutton Hoo, England… but that one technically Anglo-Saxon!).

You cannot have the former type of Viking funeral in the USA, as cremations at sea are illegal, but you could in theory have the latter.

Most cemeteries will only sell a plot for a grave at a time, and they can be fairly expensive depending on where you live in the US. However, if you own the land yourself you are able to get permission to be buried there.

So, if you have the funds and inclination, you could request to be buried in a replica Viking longship with as much ceremony as your next of kin is willing to give you.

In reality, though, this isn’t within the resources of most Americans and we are left with the choice between and traditional burial, cremation, or perhaps a green burial at best.

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