Burial at Sea: A Time-Honored Tradition

Most people think a burial at sea is something that happens only in the movies, but it's an option that is still widely used today. For many Sailors and Marines, there is no more honored choice for their mortal remains than burial at sea. For those aboard a ship during a committal service, the ceremony is both moving and memorable, giving them the chance to pay their respects to those who have served before them.

While anyone can have their remains buried at sea, burial at sea from a U.S. military vessel is limited to active-duty members of the uniformed services, retirees and veterans who were honorably discharged, U.S. civilian marine personnel of the Military Sealift Command, and dependent family members of active-duty personnel, retirees, and veterans of the uniformed services.

Even though family members are eligible for burial at sea, they are not allowed to attend a committal service on board a military vessel. The commanding officer of the ship will send the family a personal letter describing the exact date and time of the ceremony, the burial flag, pictures or videotape of the ceremony, and a chart showing the longitude and latitude where the service was performed.

The person authorized to direct disposition can provide the burial flag, which will be flown at half-mast on the ship during the committal service, and then returned to them. If they don't provide a flag, the Navy will provide one, but will not send it to the family after the ceremony. Your Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) can help you arrange all the details.

Because family members (unless they are active-duty military) are not permitted to attend, an air of mystery and questions seems to surround the committal service. Before you request burial at sea, or if a family member has requested it, be sure you're familiar with the committal service, the regulations, and the required paperwork.

Some family members choose to observe the ceremony from a civilian ship that is positioned close to the military ship. For families who want to attend the service, civilian organizations offer burial at sea from a civilian vessel.

All too often, people don't make their burial plans in advance and family members are left to handle the arrangements. If you find yourself in this situation, know that the Navy and Marine Corps offer people and services to help you.

Content provided by Arlene H. Hull for LIFELines.

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