The custom of the burial at sea is the most solemn of all naval ceremonies. Historically, sailors often spent long periods at sea in close proximity to one another developing strong, long-lasting ties and the loss of a shipmate would have both a deep emotional and practical impact on the crew.
While some ancient pagan burial rites were conducted at sea, burials at sea have, historically, been conducted only through necessity and are a comparatively recent practice. In most ancient cultures the preferred method of burial, even for those who died at sea, was on land where very specific funeral rites could be observed.
Even the popular vision of a burning Viking longboat carrying the deceased across the sea to Valhalla is something of a fallacy. Vikings, especially chieftains and others of high rank, were often buried or cremated aboard a seafaring vessel; but these vessels were normally hauled on to the shore where the traditional funeral rites could be observed and the deceased, along with the boat, were either buried or cremated on land.
Sea travel in Western Europe up to the end of the 15th century was largely confined to the waters of the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. A port, and the ability to transfer any deceased sailors ashore, was never far away. As ships began to embark on ever longer voyages, however, keeping the deceased on board in the knowledge that a port would soon be reached, became impractical.
Faced with the reality of being at sea potentially for weeks at a time and with no practical way to preserve the body, there was no alternative but to conduct a burial at sea. Yet, even after burials at sea became an accepted part of maritime life, extraordinary lengths were sometimes gone to in order to repatriate some deceased individuals for burial on land.
Funerals at Sea are Highly Ritualized Affairs
Just as funerals on land are highly ritualized affairs, rich with symbolism and metaphysical meaning, so such services developed at sea with their own rituals, symbolism and meaning, unique in the context of maritime life.
To the superstitious sailor in the age of sail, the service needed to not only honor the deceased but protect the ship from the spirits of their former shipmates, potentially angered by a perceived slight following their death, and from the bad luck that would follow any ship in which the dead were embarked.
A death on board a ship is normally reported by the ship’s surgeon or medical officer to the officer of the watch who in turn reports it to the captain. The exact position of the ship at the time of death is recorded in the ship’s log.
The elements of a funeral service at sea closely follow those observed on land. Adhering to this process comforted the deceased’s shipmates, maintained social cohesion and provided loved ones at home the cold comfort that their sea-faring family and friends were being properly laid to rest.
Preparation of the Body for Burial at Sea
The body was prepared for committal by the sailor’s former messmates before the ship’s sailmaker was called upon to sew a canvas shroud, usually the deceased’s own hammock, around the body. A weight, often two round shot from the ship’s stores but any heavy object would do, was also sewn into the shroud at the corpse’s feet to ensure a rapid descent.
The last stitch was sewn through the deceased’s nose. Folklore tells us that this was done in order to avoid any chance of sending a living person overboard while in a state of catalepsy, the shock of the stitch passing through the nose supposedly being enough to revive the patient from a catatonic state. However, the real reason was probably more pragmatic; to prevent the body from slipping out of the canvas.
For many years it was customary for the sailor who sewed the shroud to be paid a guinea a body for the task, though no regulations appear to exist in support of the custom.
The ship would normally stop for the funeral service. As on land, the body was carried feet first to the site of the service on the lee gangway. All members of the ship’s company attended the service occupying whatever space they could with the sailor’s former messmates taking the places normally reserved for the deceased’s family, flanking the body.
The body was placed on a grating and the ship’s chaplain or, if a chaplain was not available, the captain performed the service from the quarter deck.
The service proceeded in much the same way as a funeral services on land, the major difference being the committal of the body. Whereas on land, the body is committed
…to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…
At sea, the body is committed to the deep:
We therefore commit this body to the deep to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead and the life of the world come…
At the words “commit this body to the deep” two seamen lifted the inboard end of the grating while holding the flag so the body slipped from under it and into the sea. The exact wording of the committal has changed slightly over the years to reflect social attitudes. At the conclusion of the service, the ship’s company was dismissed, the yards straightened, and the ship would resume its passage.
It is not known when sailors first started to alter the wording of the committal, but the first formal alteration appeared in the 1662 edition of the Anglican ‘Book of Common Prayer’, the first edition of the Prayer Book to contain a section of prayers specifically for use at sea.
Where lives were lost at sea and the body, or bodies, were never recovered, it was and remains common for memorial services to be conducted both on land and at sea.