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Dear Departed Are Bringing Life to the Seashore

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lynne Lamb Bryant consigned her late husband to the warm, jade-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico last week, after electing to have his remains made into oceanfront property.

None of us, it has been said famously, is an island. But a man or woman now can choose to spend the afterlife as part of an artificial reef, designed to be environmentally friendly and serve as a home to fish and other marine life for at least 500 years.

The deceased’s cremated ashes are mixed into concrete. For $850 to $3,200, based on what the customer or survivors request, the concrete is then molded into a “reef ball,” looking much like an igloo with holes. And the dearly departed can sleep with the fishes.

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Teary-eyed, Bryant looked on as the 400-pound, 3-foot-high casting into which her husband’s ashes had been stirred during manufacture was lowered by crane from a barge. Thirty feet below the surface, two scuba divers positioned it on the sandy bottom.

“Goodbye, Lee,” Bryant said. “You sleep in the deep.”

It is just one of the latest options in the increasingly diverse American way of death. As baby boomers die off, a growing number are having their cremated remains launched into space, sprinkled on their favorite golf course green, or incorporated into objects such as duck decoys, shotgun shells, fireworks, paintings and designer glassware.

For Bryant, a 53-year-old resident of suburban Houston, artificial reefs were the solution to a problem that had gnawed at her since her second husband, Lee, a Kansas-born architect, died 20 years ago. An avid sailor and scuba diver, Lee Bryant wanted to be buried at sea, she said, but she was told it is illegal to cast a body into the ocean.

She had him cremated after he died of a stroke but didn’t feel right about dispersing the ashes on the water. For two decades, she kept the cremated remains in a plastic urn on a shelf, until she learned of the artificial reefs through a Web site.

She drove to the post office and sent off her husband’s ashes by certified mail.

On Thursday, a tossing 30-foot tuna boat carried Bryant three miles off Florida’s west coast, where Manatee County officials are building a reef to shelter myriad fish, including grouper, flounder, snapper and kingfish.

Bryant had felt uncertain enough about the offbeat burial rites not to mention them to many of her friends in Houston, she said. But Thursday, she was certain she had done the right thing.

The reef ball is “really a sculpture. And Lee loved sculpture.”

On the water over the burial site, she sprinkled dried flowers she had kept from her husband’s funeral service two decades before. They had been married for just three weeks and four days.

Lowered into the Gulf of Mexico at the same time were a concrete casting containing the mingled ashes of a New Jersey couple, joined now in death as they were in life, and a third igloo made in part of the ashes of a Texas woman.

Don Brawley, president of Eternal Reefs Inc. of Decatur, Ga., came along and read briefly from a speech by President Kennedy that concluded: “We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea--whether it is to sail or watch it--we are going back from whence we came.”

Brawley, 37, a former network programmer, got the idea for the novel type of burial from his father-in-law, a noted Atlanta pianist, composer and arranger. Carleton Glen Palmer, stricken with terminal cancer in the late 1990s, asked for his remains to become a part of a reef ball.

Those castings were the brainchild of one of Brawley’s friends, Todd Barber. His Bradenton, Fla.-based company has manufactured more than 100,000 of the items to help revive coral reefs in the United States and other countries and to stimulate marine life.

“I’d rather spend eternity down there, with all that life and excitement going on, than in a field with dead people,” Brawley remembers the dying Palmer telling him.

On May 1, 1998, the first “memorial reef” was cast, incorporating Palmer’s ashes. Like the balls immersed last week, it went into the Gulf off the coast of Sarasota.

“I told business acquaintances about it, and they said, ‘Wow, that’s neat. Can you do this for other people?’ ” Brawley said.

Now his company promotes the reefs as the “only death care option that is truly an environmental contribution and also creates a permanent, living memorial for the deceased and their families.”

The concrete used is specially designed to withstand the corrosive effects of seawater, according to Eternal Reefs. Once cast, the balls are left in the open air to cure for a month.

The Swiss-cheese holes are designed to attract fish, which can seek shelter from storms or predators inside the igloo. The balls’ rough surface also allows coral, sponges and other ocean plants to adhere and flourish.

Brawley already has sunk about 60 memorial reefs, mostly off Florida, and is negotiating with California authorities to do the same in the Pacific. Eternal Reefs received the green light from the U.S. government, its founder said, when the Environmental Protection Agency ruled cremation ashes were a permissible “concrete additive.”

A customer pays $850 to join a large “community reef” with 100 more people or as much as $3,200 for the solitary glory of the Atlantis, a reef ball weighing 2 tons and Eternal Reefs’ top-of-the-line model. A bronze plaque can be affixed to identify the deceased. Cremation costs are extra.

Rick Smith, 52, of Venice, Fla., said he and his dying wife knew the underwater memorial was the right choice as soon as they heard about it. Jeannette Smith, 53, a physical therapist, died of colon cancer May 7. Her reef ball should be placed on the Gulf bottom next month.

“When you sprinkle the ashes, they’re gone,” said Smith, a management consultant. “But the idea of having the reef as a place you can visit is much more comforting.” For the couple’s daughters, ages 26 and 24, he said, “there is also a sense of rebirth; giving life back to the sea, fish and coral.”

Brawley said that, for him, donning diving gear to visit his late father-in-law’s reef ball is a joyous experience that brings tears to his eyes.

“The best feeling you’re going to get from a cemetery is a somber one, at least for me,” he said. “But when you go to visit a memorial reef and see the fish swimming and all the other sea life, you get a good feeling.”


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