Green Guru: How Eco-friendly Are Reef Ball Burials?

Things to consider before burying your loved one at sea.

Is using concrete to build reef balls an eco-friendly way to be buried?

Elizabeth Wyman, Chicago, IL


Whether one’s final resting place is on land or at sea, the burial process can be surprisingly energy and chemically intensive. Yet there are some environmentally friendly alternatives, like burials in biodegradable caskets or at sea, and reef balls may prove to be one of them. 

Those who opt for interment in an artificial reef are first cremated. Then their ashes are mixed with concrete and molded into a reef ball—a hollow, holey structure that’s up to six feet wide and five feet tall. It sits on the seafloor, ideally creating marine habitat and preventing erosion. Family members often hold a memorial service when the reef ball is placed offshore. A number of companies partner with the Reef Ball Foundation, a nonprofit focused on reef rehabilitation, for such burials. (The foundation doesn’t just do interments—in April, for instance, to prevent erosion, it installed pure-concrete structures off of Bird Island for Audubon of Florida.) 

The ecological benefits are still being studied, but in degraded areas some artificial reefs have been shown to attract fish. “Depending on the site, the first thing that settles is algae and diatoms,” says Robin Sherman, a Nova Southeastern University biologist who has studied artificial reefs. “As they set up housekeeping, you get what eats them, like shrimp and other invertebrates. Then the fish will come.” 

The downside is that they’re made from cement. Cement plants generate 2.4 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, and global cement production is about two billion metric tons a year; each of the 200 or so funerary reef balls laid annually uses at least a quarter of a ton. A traditional burial has its cons, too, including toxic embalming fluids and steel caskets.

For a truly eco-friendly option, consider a biodegradable casket or shroud—or forgoing one all together (see “Dying to Be Green,” September-October 2010).

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