burial at sea

Most of us really don’t want to think about our own funeral, but when men are at war, death and a funeral become a subject they have to think about. They don’t want to, but they have no guarantee that they will return home, so they are faced with the possibility of death every day. In the Navy, during wartime, at least in the past, if not currently, it was common practice to bury the casualties at sea. That is such a hard concept for me, and yet there isn’t really anything wrong with it. I guess that having no grave site to visit is probably the thing that is bothering me the most. It’s not that I spend days and hours at the cemetery, but rather that I know exactly where my loved ones are laid to rest, or where I will be.

Burials at sea have been going on as long as men have been going to sea. For logical reasons, a body could not be kept on board a ship for the remainder of the cruise, so the death had to be dealt with. In early days, the body was wrapped in a shroud, usually made of sailcloth, but later caskets were also used. If the family has decided to use a casket instead of a shroud for the burial at sea, the casket must be a metal casket, because it must be able to deteriorate in the marine environment. I suppose that makes sense, because eventually ships and planes return to the environment around them. The sea eventually claims what doesn’t belong there naturally. Of course, the timeframe involved in the deterioration of the casket would be well beyond the lifetime of the families, so I guess that would make it easier to think about it.

Military burials at sea are performed with much pomp and circumstance. The honor of the soldier is held in the highest regard. The personnel who participate or even attend the services must wear the Uniform of the Day. The commanding officer tries to have a chaplain of the appropriate faith perform the ceremony, but if that is not an option, the service may be read by the commanding officer or an officer designated by him/her. The service is much like a church service, with a eulogy, firing squad salute, pall bearers, and a flag ceremony. When everything is finished, the body is moved to the side of the ship of a plank and then the plank is raised so that the casket or shrouded body slides off into the sea.

Of course, when a ship sinks, there is an instant burial at sea for all who do not survive. Many times the ship is not found for years, so the ship becomes the casket for all those who lost their lives. The family can seek to have the body recovered when the ship is found, but often that does not happen. The USS Arizona is probably one of the most well known casket ships in the world, and while it was easy to see and get to, many of the families chose to leave their loved ones there. The USS Arizona went down with 1,177 Sailor and Marines on board. The ship marks the final resting spot of 1,102 of the original 1,177. Also, beginning in 1982, the US Navy has allowed surviving crew members to be “buried” on the Arizona.

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