On the Water: Celebrating a Life

White family returning from a Celebration of Life cruise. Courtesy photo

Catalina Island has a long history of attracting people who fall in love here and fall in love with the island, even after they have passed on.

I think it is a testament to the enduring beauty of the island that so many people ask to have their ashes scattered along our shores.

Catallac has been chartered to host a number of such celebrations over the years, some for islanders and many for mainlanders who were frequent visitors. All have one thing in common: Nobody knows exactly how to go about it.

There is no step-by-step manual that describes the best practices of scattering the ashes of a loved one at sea, and most of us may only be responsible for such a task once, maybe twice in our life. As a result, I have found myself in the role of guide for many customers who call to make arrangements aboard Catallac. Oddly, the regulations for scattering ashes are governed by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Odder still, the EPA regulations that apply to scattering ashes at sea are mostly the same as the regulations for burying uncremated remains (a body) at sea (I have yet to do that): Placement of materials which are not readily decomposable in the marine environment, such as plastic or metal flowers and wreaths, tombs, tombstones, gravestones, monuments, mausoleums, artificial reefs, etc.

Placement of human remains in ocean waters within three nautical miles from shore, i.e., the ordinary low water mark or a closing line drawn on nautical charts across the openings of bays and rivers.

Placement of non-human remains (such as pet remains).

That’s it. In a state so full of regulations there are no California laws governing the scattering of ashes at sea. It is understandable why people are confused about the procedure since it is so unusual to have such a legal void about such a seemingly important activity.

I am cool with that, it is my job to ensure that the procedure is within the regs. It gives the family a lot of leeway in the proper way to send off their loved ones. We have enough laws governing everything else. The legal issues are only a small part of the process. Designing the ceremony is usually the bigger challenge.

I have seen it all, from the distant cousin who gets tasked with the responsibility of getting Aunt May off his aging mother’s mantle, to the family grieving the loss of both parents. I can tell you there are some things you do not and cannot do.

As fun as it might sound, you cannot do a Viking Funeral whereby you release a “boat” containing the ashes and some incendiary device that is lit (by flaming arrows?) and burns the ash-carrying vessel to its demise.

You also cannot put items that are not readily decomposable into the ocean. That means plastic. And every funeral house and crematorium uses plastic bags to contain the ashes whether they are placed in an urn or not. This is usually a big surprise to the family members when I have to be the one to inform them that they need to redistribute the ashes into a legal container.

Here is a tip. Purchase a decomposable urn and be sure to tell the funeral house that the ashes must be placed into this urn without a plastic bag. Most will still put the ashes in there in a bag, so you will still have to check. I have seen a couple of approaches that work nicely. One group brought an urn made of sand that slowly absorbed the sea and slid into the depths. Another group had the ashes in a hand-made paper envelope upon which each family member penned a personal good-bye message. This really helped ease the awkward moment when an invitation is given for anybody who would like to speak during the ceremony.

One of the most touching procedures that I have witnessed was a family that had spent many summers on their parent’s boat moored along our shores. We cruised the length of the island, distributing ashes along the way, as they all told stories of the various antics and shared memories of the good times they had as a family visiting Catalina Island.

This weekend, we had a wonderful family group of 21 members aged 6 months to over 80 years on board Catallac to scatter the ashes of mom and dad. Catallac is such a comfortable vessel. She can accommodate wheelchairs and we have plenty of room for the young ones to move around with indoor and outdoor seating for everyone else.

It was a stormy weekend, but the weather cleared for their moment as they gathered on board to share stories, say a few prayers and reminisce about the good times.

The ashes were put into woven baskets with palm fronds and flowers, then slowly lowered side-by-side to the water to float away and sink among a million rose petals (all legal). There was not a dry eye on the boat.

By the time we returned to the harbor, the mood had lightened. The woman who had chartered Catallac came to the bridge to thank me and to share her happiness. “We were not sure what to do or how this might work out,” she said, “but it was a perfect send off to my mom and dad. They loved Catalina Island.”

Capt. John runs Afishinados Charters and Catallac Tours – john@afishinados.com – 888-613-7770


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