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Gravely concerned about pollution, some Britons opt for burial at sea


LONDON -- Environmentalism in Britain for some is a lifetime commitment. For a few others, it may even go beyond that.

That, at least, is one explanation for the increase in burials at sea: They are ecologically correct.

"We've always had people with a particular connection to the sea," said Wally Parson, "the sailors, the women whose husbands were torpedoed during the war and who want to be with them at the end."

Mr. Parson speaks knowledgeably, and for Britain's National Association of Funeral Directors. He was elaborating on his own estimate that burials at sea "have increased by over 100 percent over the past five years."

"Now we have these other people as well," he said. "People who are saying it's the best method of disposal, people who don't like burial because it uses up the ground, who don't like cremation because of the gases it exudes [from burning wooden coffins] and adding to the ozone problems."

These are the super-greens.

Not everyone shares this point of view, of course, least of all the people at the Agriculture Ministry who issue the permits for burials at sea and set the standards.

And there are standards -- such as fast-degrading coffins, usually of chipboard, with holes drilled into them to help them sink faster, and weights to keep them down. And the matter of location.

"We are actively discouraging it," said Paul Hayward, a spokesman for the ministry. "It doesn't fall into line with our policy for protec

tion of the marine environment. We see it as just another form of pollution. Imagine! Bodies floating around."

Nevertheless, if a serious request for a burial at sea is made, Mr. Hayward's ministry will usually issue a license. It will do this because the numbers of such burials, despite the great percentage increase, are as yet not great.

The government estimates the number of ocean burials at only 30 a year. But Mr. Parson doubts that figure. He suggests it is often carried out informally because most people don't know that a license is required. And, he points out, the practice is becoming more popular.

The ministry requires that such burials be confined to certain offshore areas where fishermen rarely go. These are the places where sewage and household garbage dumping is permitted. "Fishermen know of this and tend to stay away," Mr. Hayward said. "The biggest problem would be the coffins being dragged up by nets. Can you imagine?"

There are those who suspect that ocean burials may be just a macabre fashion, just as there are those who regard them as a legitimate, if unorthodox, way to go.

Michael Hawgood is the man at J. H. Kenyon Ltd. in charge of unusual funerals. He has done nine ocean burials since 1984.

He thinks there would probably be more if they weren't so expensive, between $4,000 and $6,000. About half of that is to rent the boat.

Mr. Hawgood does all his ocean burials off the coast of New Haven and Sussex, in the south of England. He insists it is a tasteful, even romantic, ritual. "We have a service on the quayside for 50 or 60 people. We only take a dozen or so on the boat, and we go about 11 nautical miles."

His clients are sunk into about 130 feet of water near the intercontinental telephone cable, which fishing boats generally avoid. That way, he says, there is no chance of a trawler dredging up the coffin.

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