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“Eternal Reefs” Turn Loved Ones’ Cremated Ashes Into Food for Marine Life

June 23, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

We’re all familiar with the concept of donating our organs, brains, and other body parts after we pass on…but what if we could help sustain our planet’s marine life by turning our ashes into fish food?

That “what if” became a reality as soon as Eternal Reefs began implementing the innovative practice of mixing a person’s cremated remains with special, environmentally friendly concrete that mimics “Mother Nature” to create a giant, hollow ball with a vented bottom that can stand up to 4 feet high and 5 feet wide and weigh up to 4,000 pounds.

Friends and family members mix the “cremains” together, decorate it with special memorabilia to represent the life their loved ones lived, and take a boat trip with other families  to watch as their loved one’s reef ball is lowered to its final resting place on the ocean floor.

These living memorials quickly foster new marine growth, replenishing the world’s diminishing natural reef systems and allowing a person to continue to give back to the environment after death. Fish will migrate onto the reef balls as soon as they are placed, and, depending on water conditions, growth on these reefs is evident in as little as a few weeks.

George Frankel, CEO and Founder of Eternal Reefs, explained that the design has to be stable in the marine environment so that it does not easily move around in high energy events, like hurricanes.

“Once these Reef Balls have matured, they are permanent additions to the marine environment. They will continue to develop and support marine life forever,” he said.

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Last year, Phyllis Flowers took the boat out to sea to “bury” her son, John, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor the day after his high school graduation.

John had also been living with Asperger’s syndrome for most of his life, and developed an insatiable enthusiasm for “all things ocean.” He got his diving certification at age eight, and, shortly after, became a children’s swim instructor and spent much of his time working at a dive shop and researching ocean conservation, marine ecology and how reef conservation helped all marine life. So when his doctors told him he only had a month to live, he thanked the nurses and staff, apologized to his mother for “not being able to be there for her,” and looked up Eternal Reefs on the internet.

“I want to plan out this party you’re gonna have for me after I die,” he had told his mother. “I want to give something back to the ocean.”

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After making sure that his brain and spine were donated to science, Phyllis had honored his third wish and used his remains to create a reef ball, which was decorated with his first diving knife, the dog tags from his very first pet, and one final addition, his sister’s half of the matching friendship necklaces they wore.

“We picked flowers that day and threw them off the back of the boat,” Phyllis said. “I have a necklace I wear with the exact coordinates of the reef ball’s resting place on it. I definitely feel like he’s in the right place.”

Kendra Turner was surprised to learn that her father, Kevin W. Richardson, wanted to be memorialized as a reef himself after reading an article about Eternal Reefs in the paper.

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“When I asked him what he wanted done with his remains, he simply looked at me and said, ‘I want to be a reef,’ to which I promptly responded, ‘You want to be a whaaaaat?’” recalls Kendra.

“We followed up and made the decision to proceed after he passed away from lung cancer on March 28. His love of the sea made it a perfect fit, and watching his reef ball enter the ocean truly made me feel like we were sending him home.” 

He was memorialized in this past weekend’s Eternal Reef dedication, where Kendra, her family, and 70 other people gathered in Sarasota from all corners of the country, like Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia to memorialize 14 loved ones who passed by mixing the cremains, decorating the reef balls, and boarding boats for the journey to say their final goodbyes as the reefs were lowered into the ocean.

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Charlene Creel was on that boat, memorializing her late husband, Thomas David Creel. The two were “total water people,” as she puts it, getting out into the ocean as often as possible.

“Having three generations participate in making the reef, pouring ashes, stirring etc. was a special event. We all added something special,” she said. “This is not your grandfather’s old funeral, no casket, ugly furniture, or sad music.”

There are also special military honors that involve family members from multiple branches of service.

“We had one project where we had five World War II combat veterans being honored, along with members of the Army, Navy, Army Air Corp, Marines and Merchant Marine,” Frankel said.

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It all started back in 1992, when Co-Founder Don Brawley and his friends, just a group of college kids, began to notice the degradation of the natural reef systems as they embarked on a number of diving trips. They tinkered and developed technology that is now known as the world standard in artificial reefs.

More than 700,000 reefs developed by Reef Innovations and the Reef Ball Foundation (both strategic partners with Eternal Reefs) have been placed in 70 countries around the world, with more than 1,500 Eternal Reefs in 25 permitted locations off the US coastlines of New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida (North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Gulf Coast and Panhandle) and Texas, substantially increasing the ocean’s diminishing reef systems.

“When they get home they don’t talk about going to bury dad or grandma. They go home and say, ‘You wouldn’t believe what we did this weekend!’” said Frankel. “What we hear most frequently is that ‘It’s not so much that they are gone, it’s more like, ‘Look what they are doing now.’”

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