With help of Florida company, Timonium mother lays son to rest on Atlantic reef

A few years before he died, Judy Romano's son told her that he wanted his cremated remains to be buried in an ocean reef.

The mother of two brushed it off, as mothers do, telling Barry Alan Friedman to pass his wishes on to his younger sister; Romano said she would be long gone before her son died.

Last July, Friedman crossed a busy stretch of Texas road known to drivers for having limited street lighting when he was struck by a Honda Civic. Neither the driver nor Romano's son saw each other, according to the Austin, Texas Police Department.

The 40-year-old Dulaney High School and Johns Hopkins University graduate died at the scene in Austin, where his mother said he was working for a remodeling company.

"It's not the way life is supposed to be," Romano said of her son's accidental death. "It's not the order of life. Parents should not be burying their children."

Ten months later, and more than three hours from the family's Timonium home, Romano set out to fulfill her son's last wishes in Ocean City May 8 with a service arranged by Florida-based Eternal Reefs.

The company creates reef memorials in the ocean made from a mixture of concrete and cremated human remains, said Eternal Reefs CEO George Frankel.

The 750 to 3,800-pound reef balls create new marine habitats for fish and other sea life, Frankel said. At a cost of $2,995 to $7,500, the memorials also help build up oceans reefs threatened by such human activity as pollution and unsustainable fishing practices.

The memorials are placed in locations permitted for fishing, diving or habitat development.

On May 8, Romano joined six other families on a boat ride from Ocean City into the Atlantic Ocean to say goodbye to their loved ones. She was accompanied by her daughter, son-in law, grandchildren, husband and Friedman's college friends.

About four miles off shore, each family was called, one by one, to the edge of the boat, from where they watched workers on a nearby barge cast into the sea the reef ball memorial they'd helped to make just days before.

Romano read a poem from a greeting card she'd mailed to her son 15 years ago.

"He had saved it," Romano said. "When his reef went down I read the poem. That's what it says on his plaque — 'Believe in Yourself.' Sometimes, when things get tough, people give up, but he never did."

Once placed, Eternal Reef staff dedicated the memorials with a short passage from a speech given by former President John F. Kennedy, and, as a final tribute, crew members sounded the boat horn three times before heading to shore.

Evolving traditions

The ocean ceremony is one of many alternative burial methods gaining popularity alongside a rise in cremation, said Mike Nicodemus, vice president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

According to the group, public preference for and acceptance of cremation has risen over the last 10 years and the trend has no signs of slowing.

The percentage of families that choose cremation is expected to rise in 2017 to 51.6 percent and reach more than 70 percent by 2030, according to the NFDA.

Families are choosing traditional burials less often for a variety of reasons, Nicodemus explained.

"You have a family get together and — especially if no one has talked about what to do — you have families just putting together ideas," he said. "Everyone comes up with some type of reason and comes up with a happy medium, and that's what they do. There's really no sort of research as to why [the trend has changed], as much as this is just a personal choice for the families."

Cremation may also cost significantly less than traditional cemetery burials, Nicodemus said.

While a traditional burial costs about $3,000 before embalming, facilities fees, visitation or a casket, an immediate cremation, without a viewing, can cost under $2,500, according to NFDA statistics.

After cremation, Nicodemus said some families have chosen to have their family member's remains made into jewelry. Others have used ashes to create a fireworks display, while one company uses a mix of ashes and paint to create custom paintings.

The increase in cremation is also being seen in Towson, said Ruck Funeral Homes president Michael Ruck Sr. The Towson funeral home, which has operated in the Baltimore area for 93 years, also has a crematorium.

Though Ruck said he couldn't attribute a specific number to the increase in cremations, about 30 percent of families he sees now choose that option, an "incremental" increase from 10 years ago, he said.

"Certainly the number of families we serve is increasing," he said of the crematorium. "There's a certain comfort level knowing that we can do everything right here."

Once a person is cremated, families choose the next step, Ruck said. Most still choose traditional burials, but the fraction that choose Eternal Reefs, or other non-traditional methods, has risen alongside the rise in cremation, he added.

"Families are also realizing they can have any type of funeral service before cremation," Ruck said.

'A sense of contribution'

After her son was cremated, Romano asked friends and family to make gifts to strangers of random acts of kindness, something she said her son would have wanted.

Frankel attributes families interest in alternative burial methods and ceremonies to a desire to get more involved in seeing off their family members.

Since going into business 17 years ago, Eternal Reefs has placed more than 2,000 reef memorials in the Atlantic Ocean and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

"They take ownership and there's a real sense of contribution," Frankel said. "You're seeing a sea change in how people are viewing memorialization. They're not seeing the same value in a casket they see for an hour."

Three days before the ceremony, Friedman's family and friends mixed his ashes in with an ocean-safe concrete blend.

After the concrete ball was set, the group adorned it with mementos of things Friedman enjoyed, or of things the 40-year-old never got to do — a Jewish star for his religion, Orioles pins, coins from places Friedman traveled and a million dollars in shredded currency.

Though shredded currency has no monetary value it can be purchased from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing as a novelty item.

The family also included a model of his dream BMW car and a picture of Friedman's cat, Isabelle.

Romano said the ceremony brought closure in knowing her son's ashes would go toward helping the environment.

"I know Barry is no longer here, but when I look in the ocean, I know he is at peace and making a small, but positive, impact that will last beyond our lifetime," Romano said.

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