|Commitment of the cremated remains of Neil Armstrong to sea during a burial at sea service held on board the USS Philippine Sea (CG 58), Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, in the Atlantic Ocean. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Admiralty law has long recognized internment at sea as one of the "perils of the sea" that crew and passengers alike, of necessity, agree to endure if necessary when signing on as crew or booking passage as a passenger. Until well past the middle of the 20th century it more often than not made sense. Few ships had the know how or the facilities to preserve a body for very long. Today by contrast large commercial ocean transports often have facilities for rather lengthy body preservation (upwards of two weeks) and smaller offshore support craft are usually within the medical evacuation distance of coast guard helicopters and patrol vessels. While internment of human remains at sea can still be a necessity on rare occasions, generally most commercial maritime transport lines prefer to refrain from the practice unless the deceased family formally requests such final disposal in writing.
If you are one of our merchant marine deck officer readers we sincerely hope that you never have to deal with this issue. But the distinct possibility always exists. That is why every master or chief officer should know the things we outline for you below. Disposal of human remains in haste can cause legal problems, survivor family distress, personal and corporate liabilities. Keep the following in mind.
Know your ship's facilities that could prove helpful in the event of sudden crew member or passenger death. Have a plan ready in advance. Should you have to deal with an unexpected death of a crewman or passenger at sea immediate action must be taken to preserve the body and show respect to the deceased and their families. Showing respect at all times is especially important, preservation of the body is especially important if the ship is some days or even weeks from a port where the body may be disembarked and shipped home. Respect should include a sort of "wake" in which the body is laid out, out of the weather and respectful crew and /or passenger viewing is permitted under the watchful eye of at least one of the ships officers. Often the deceased may have friends or even relatives aboard. Prayers may be offered at this time which generally should happen very soon after death is discovered and before body preservation efforts begin.
Body Preservation Efforts Generally Should Not Include Freezing:
When bodies are frozen the tissues dehydrate and discoloration of the skin ensues. This discoloration can make the body difficult for relatives to identify and cause family members a great deal of distress. Shore side authorities should be contacted as soon after death is discovered as possible and shore side authority should contact the family. As the responsible ship's officer however you should not assume the shore side shipping company office, or even naval authorities have any real grasp of the complications of death at sea. If you are a long way from a port and the only choices may be between "burial at sea" and freezing the body, the ship's officer should fully brief his shore side contact on the situation and on the effects of freezing on a body. Families who choose freezing, and many will, are best served if the deteriorated condition of the body is not a surprise. Among the other potential problem with freezing the deceased is fracture. Fractures to frozen corpses may negatively impact coroner's investigations and complicate medical and legal interpretation of post mortem investigative results. Additionally frozen bodies must be carefully thawed before medical examination, adding additional delay to the release of the body to the family of the deceased.
REFRIGERATION OF CORPSES IS PREFERRED TO FREEZING:
A human body placed in a commercial "body bag" or plastic wrapping of similar quality might be kept as long as 60 days if refrigerated 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) . Most full size ocean transport vessels, and military transports will have large walk in refrigerated spaces. Properly wrapped, storing the body in the same space with food items should not be problem, so long as refrigeration systems do not fail. On smaller vessels this may not be an option. On something like a commercial fishing vessel a well wrapped body might be stored over some ice and under a light cover of ice but this is no substitute for refrigeration but should allow a couple of days to make land fall or helicopter range. The deceased family should be made aware of the increased risk of damage including the possibility of accidental freezing. There can be no guarantees when a body is iced down.
Once a death at sea occurs, there will probably be emotional issues to deal with from both crew aboard and family ashore. After notification of death the family may request certain religious or cultural customs be observed. These requests are sometimes simple and the USPHS publication THE MEDICINE CHEST AT SEA has some guidelines that may prove helpful at least with Christian and Jewish requests, but resources and people at sea are always limited and the responsible officer should be honest concerning which requests can or can not be performed. In the case of small crews or whenever the deceased had friends aboard it may be advisable to have a grief counselor visit the ship upon landing. This precaution is especially pertinent in the event of an on board suicide.
Another emotional and legal issue is disposition of the property of the deceased. All property of the deceased should be inventoried by two officers and one rating or enlisted if appropriate. On a commercial passenger ship the aid of a passenger with a legal back ground should be enlisted in completing the inventory and containerizing the property. In the case of ship's personnel be sure to account for all licenses and seaman's certificates.
TODAY, DISPOSING OF THE BODY AT SEA IS DISFAVORED UNLESS THE DECEASED FAMILY SPECIFICALLY REQUESTS THE SERVICE IN WRITING OR THERE SIMPLY IS NO OTHER CHOICE. IMPROPER CARE OF THE BODY OR SLOPPY CONTROL OF THE DECEASED PERSONAL PROPERTY ARE LEADING CAUSES OF FAMILY DISTRESS AND RESULTANT LAW SUITES IN THE EVENT OF DEATH AT SEA. IF THERE IS ONE UNIVERSAL GUIDE THAT COVERS ALL SIZED VESSELS IT IS SIMPLY HANDLE THE BODY AND THE PERSONAL PROPERTY OF THE DECEASED WITH UTMOST CARE AND CAUTION AND COMMUNICATE CARE, AND CONCERN TO THE FAMILY ASHORE BY WHATEVER MEANS AVAILABLE, HOWEVER , LEAVE SUCH COMMUNICATIONS TO SHORE SIDE PERSONNEL AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. THE BEST WAY EXPRESS SUCH CARE AND CONCERN IS VIA MESSAGES DELIVERED BY YOUR SHORE SIDE SUPPORT SYSTEM, NOT VIA SAT PHONE OR RADIO DIRECTLY TO THE FAMILY. IF YOUR MESSAGE REQUIRES ANY EDITING TO PRESERVE LEGAL PROTECTIONS, OR SOFTEN NEWS THE SHORE SIDE PERSONNEL HAVE ACCESS TO LAWYERS, COUNSELORS, AND OTHER EXPERTS.
THIS SITUATION IS ALWAYS COMPLEX AND PERSONALLY CHALLENGING. DON"T FORGET TO PRAY FOR GUIDANCE BECAUSE EACH SITUATION IS DIFFERENT, NO ONE GUIDE FITS ALL.