Thinking Outside the Box
Like many things in society, attitudes toward death and burials are changing.
While many people still prefer a traditional funeral, there’s a growing trend toward cremation, which, according to the Cremation Association of North America, accounted for more than half of all burials in the United States for the first time in 2016.
But what to do with those cremated remains—or cremains— beyond assigning them to a shelf or closet?
One Sarasota-based company offers an innovative way to immortalize loved ones, and at the same time benefit future generations, by combining cremains with artificial reefs that are placed in permitted ocean locations to create new habitats for sea life.
“I like to say that we are pioneering a social change through ‘conservation memorialization,’” says George Frankel, CEO and owner of Eternal Reefs, a company with roots dating back nearly 20 years.
In the late ’80s, a pair of college roommates from the University of Georgia came up with the idea of sinking environmentally friendly hollow structures full of holes to help rehabilitate and rebuild Florida’s deteriorating reefs. Their “reef balls” replicated the natural marine environment and attracted microorganisms, those little buds of life floating in the currents looking for a home.
Fish began to show up as soon as the reef balls were set in place, and depending on water conditions, coral and sponge growth began in as little as a few weeks. The Reef Ball Development Group was born.
“The reef ball was a brilliant idea,” says Frankel. “It had to be stable and work with Mother Nature. The answer was a rounded design composed of a pH-neutral concrete formula.”
In 1992, the Reef Ball Development Group and Reef Ball Foundation completed the first reef ball project near Fort Lauderdale. Since then, more than 4,000 projects in more than 70 countries have placed more than 700,000 reef balls on the ocean floor. Today they are the world standard for fisheries programs, coral restoration and habitat development projects.
In 1998, the father-in-law of Don Brawley, one of the original developers of the reef ball, passed away. It was his wish to have his cremated remains placed in a reef ball, saying, “I can think of nothing better than having all that action going on around me after I am gone.”
Brawley mixed his father-in-law’s cremains into a special “memorial” reef and added it to a group of original reef balls being placed on Silvertooth Reef in Sarasota. The popularity of the idea led to the founding of Eternal Reefs Inc., which to date has placed more than 1,800 memorial reefs in 20 locations off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia.
The memorial reefs are placed in locations designated for recreational fishing and diving or for habitat development, permitted by federal, state and local governments. The largest “green memorial” in the U.S. is in Sarasota, where several hundred memorial reefs have been dedicated.
On January 1, 2017, Eternal Reefs became a not-for-profit
“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea ... we are going back from whence we came.” —President John F. Kennedy
organization operating under the name The Genesis Reef Project dba (doing business as) Eternal Reefs.
Memorial reefs come in three sizes, the largest of which can accommodate up to four sets of cremains and is frequently used for spouses and other family members to be together.
“We can also include pets at no charge,” says Frankel. “This is a popular option, and we have actually included as many as 15 pets in a single Eternal Reef.”
From casting of a memorial reef to final placement takes four days. Eternal Reefs encourages families and friends to participate in the process. The company also relies on lots of local volunteers, including members of the Sarasota Parrot Head Club.
On day one, cremains are mixed with concrete and placed into a mold to create what is called a Pearl, which then cures overnight. Meanwhile, a fresh layer of concrete is added to the top of the reef ball itself, which friends and family are encouraged to adorn with hand prints, written messages and small mementos. On the second day, the Eternal Reefs staff sets the Pearl in place and makes final preparations. A bronze plaque with the loved one’s name is mounted on the reef ball.
Day three is for family and friends to view the finished reef, take photos, make rubbings of the plaque and write final goodbyes and tributes inside and out. This is also the time when a military service for veterans can be held if requested.
“Parents tell us all the time that the memorial reef concept is a great way to introduce a child to a loss,” says Frankel. “It is more an arts and crafts project than it is a funeral.”
The memorial reef is placed in the ocean on day four while the individual’s name is read. Then the family is given an opportunity to dedicate the reef site to their loved one. The executor of the estate receives the exact longitude and latitude of the memorial.
For those interested in planning for their memorial reef, the company has partnered with an insurance company so individuals can ensure that their wishes will be followed, and paid for, after their death.
Military veterans, environmentalists, fishermen, sailors, divers and people who have loved the sea all their lives can be comforted by the thought of being surrounded by all that life and action going on around them.
Family and friends are part of the process of creating the memorial reef, and then they gather for the dedication of the reef site to their loved one.
Made at Eternal Reef's Sarasota facility, each memorial reef can be personalized with decorations and a brass name plate (above) before being placed underwater.