Dave and Melissa O'Ferrall savored their trips to Ocean City, often walking the boardwalk all the way south to the inlet. From there, they could see Assateague Island and admire the fishing and pleasure boats.
Now that view comes with a 21st-century twist: Three miles off the coast, 100 feet below the waves, is a "living" memorial to Melissa, who died three years ago. A concrete ball containing her ashes has become part of an artificial reef designed to nurture fish and other marine life.
Before her death (because of treatment complications of a rare form of arthritis), the 33-year-old Baltimorean became captivated by the notion that her earthly remains could form part of a memorial artificial reef, according to her husband. Now he's equally interested.
"I love the ocean and this seems more fitting for me than to be in a grave site someplace where people feel guilty about not visiting enough. Here I can walk down to the inlet, look out and pretty much know where Melissa is," says 44-year-old O'Ferrall, secretary-treasurer for Local 487 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts.
As aging baby boomers begin pondering their legacies, they are also planning their final expressions. Some are veering far from the traditional funeral and burial path, choosing to send a loved one's cremated remains to be made into diamond jewelry, for instance, or to be shot off with fireworks, or added to the paint used for a tribute portrait.
A growing number favor making environmentally sensitive statements, says Mark Harris, author of the recently published Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.
The environmental journalist writes about home funerals, backyard burials and natural cemeteries where the deceased can be placed in biodegradable coffins of cardboard or pine, then buried in a protected section of woodland. He also interviews boomers who believe that death is part of the cycle of renewal.
Eternal Reefs Inc. promotes memorial reefs as a way to replace natural reefs that have been destroyed or damaged. These artificial reefs, located along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, are created from reef balls composed of a mixture of cremated remains and marine-grade concrete. (The cost usually runs from roughly $2,500 to $6,500.) Formed into cones laced with holes, the memorials create new marine habitats and reflect boomers' environmental agenda, says the 47-year-old Harris.
"We pushed in the first Earth Day. We brought a more natural approach to childbirth. We initially drove organics into the grocery store. We have brought pretty clear thinking and open-mindedness and environmental consciousness to bear on each stage of our life," he says. "That's not proving to be any different as we're starting to consider the final send-off."
Consider the changing statistics on cremation, which Harris considers more environmentally friendly than the "typical, modern funeral." Roughly 30 percent of Americans are now cremated, a figure expected to increase to more than 50 percent by 2025, according to the Cremation Association of North America. (The group estimates that 37 percent of Maryland residents will be cremated by 2010.)
Grave Matters profiles people who have found more natural and less costly alternatives to such funeral industry conventions as embalming, as well as those who insist on retaining control of what happens to their loved ones' bodies.
One of them is Beth Knox. When her 7-year-old daughter Alison was killed suddenly by an airbag in 1995, the Takoma Park resident refused to relinquish her body to a funeral parlor. Instead, she brought her youngest child back home.
"I had always done everything with my children," Knox says. "So the idea that when the heart stops beating you have to hand over your loved one's care to a stranger and send her to a foreign place was anathema to me. It was impossible to contemplate ...
"Every day people are told, in defiance of the law, that a body can only be released to a funeral home. But in most states, including Maryland, the law says that the family has a right to care for their own departed without the assistance of a funeral director."
Knox tended to Alison's body in the little girl's bedroom with the help of others versed in home funerals. Visited by family and friends, she was able to stay close by her child for two days before the actual funeral service. Alison was cremated, her ashes scattered in favorite places.
Two years later, Knox founded Crossings, a non-profit home funeral organization. She holds workshops around the country, instructing families and hospice workers on after-death care and home funerals.
She says she started her organization in part because of the misinformation she received at the hospital after her daughter's death. She also wanted others to be able to share the sense of peace she felt by bringing Alison home.
"I did everything I could for her," she says. "I did everything out of love and I served her, at least her physical body, until there was no more serving to be done. That knowledge has been a tremendous comfort to me over the years. And when we stay with the body like that, when we watch its changes, there is also a visceral experience that the person is really no longer on earth. It's a knowledge that comes from watching, and from being with, and from touching."
As a baby boomer, Knox says she was not satisfied to "do something simply because someone else told us that's the way it's supposed to be done ...
"We question authority. We question life habits," she says. "We changed childbirth and wedding vows and education and church services, and this is one more ritual. We've been working our way through the life cycle, and now we're coming to the end."
For more information about alternative funerals and natural ways of burial, try these Web sites:
For home funerals: crossings.net
The Green Burial Council encourages ethical and environmentally sustainable burial practices: decentburial.org
Memorial reefs: eternalreefs.com
For excerpts from Grave Matters: gravematters.us