Burials at Sea From the Star Fish

The Last Wish of True-Blue Boaters
Oct 17, 2018
Photo by: Maxwell Goldman

The veteran Beach Haven charter fisherman who captains the Star Fish offers another service: burials at sea. Capt. Carl Sheppard has taken many families out past 3 miles, where they commit their loved one’s ashes to the deep – sometimes it’s to fulfill the wishes of a die-hard angler.

“One family this year wanted me to go out to the person’s favorite fishing spot,” Sheppard related.

They asked the captain if he was sure when he readily said yes – the spot was 47 miles out, a deep-welled mini-canyon. The 75-year-old captain and the 40-foot boat were both able, and the family made the most of the day in memory of the man.

“They had a combination burial service and tuna trip.”

Other families carry out a solely solemn venture. The service itself is in traditional style.

“I have never had a party that didn’t feel that they wanted to thank me very specially, because it was what they hoped for,” Sheppard is proud to say. “So it’s kind of wonderful.”

Conducting his first burials at sea originated with his own parents. His father, Carl, was boating editor of Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin, and his column was later published in the Inquirer. His Swedish mother, Ulrika Corin, “delivered me a matter of hours after she caught her last fish.” Her father, Magnus, lived on Third Street in Beach Haven and had a boat all his life.

“Many years ago when my parents were alive, they wanted to be buried at sea. So we saved their ashes and mixed them together,” he said. “I took them out with my family, and we buried them at sea. That was seen and heard by some of the other local captains and their families. They said, ‘Would you do it for us?’”

Star Fish can carry up to 19 passengers, so that has allowed the demand to grow. “Often the funeral parties are fairly large.

“I’ve had people from Greece; (people) fly in from all over the world for these services, so it’s not unusual to schedule them far enough in advance that they can make international arrangements.”

It’s not that no other boats have done this; it’s just not an everyday occurrence. And there are protocols.

“I think I’m the only person who has a formal service,” Sheppard said.

“We go out to over 3 miles offshore so it’s legal, and we anchor and we run the burial service, which is very similar to the military service. It’s basically a Christian service, but we also have one in Hebrew.”

There is no pre-recorded music; the cries of the gulls take care of that. Dolphins have swum up to be part of the ceremony. One family sang their own music.

“The last one that I did, at the end of the service the people aboard broke into what is called the Doxology and sang it in seven-part harmony,” Sheppard recalled. “ ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow....’ It was absolutely gorgeous.”

Being out there on the water, coupled with the occasion, “It’s an incredibly moving ceremony,” he said.

One might wonder how a burial could be arranged in advance, not knowing the weather. Well, Sheppard knows the water and his boat.

“She’s a big, heavy boat, and as long as the wind is under, oh, say, 20 knots and the seas are round and the rain doesn’t come down, there’s no problem,” he assured. “There’s no weather this boat can’t go out in – it’s that heavy.”

Round seas refer to the angle of the wave. The difference between round versus steep is the difference between being able to go up one side and down the other, or smack into something vertical, he explained.

Nonetheless, the passengers make the choice of whether they want to go out, given the conditions.

The boat is moored at Morrison’s Marina, along Second Street in Beach Haven. The trip and service take about three hours from beginning to end.

Most people aren’t familiar with the out-of-the-ordinary topic of burial at sea. Yes, it is legal (under specified guidelines) to commit a whole body to sea, but no, Sheppard does not do that. His service offers to commit cremated remains only. Even so, he must follow protocol.

“I’ve got to do an EPA certification for every funeral,” he said, referring to the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. “I have to say where and when and the depth of the water,” he listed, “and whether there is a burial container, and it has to be one which will break up in the water.

“And I have to be out beyond the 3-mile mark so I’m in federal waters,” he added. A history fact followed, explaining the delineation of the country’s territorial waters.

“Why it’s 3 miles – how far will a black powder cannon shoot? It’s the outer range of that black powder cannon, that which you couldn’t protect.”

Sheppard is a military veteran of – no, not the Navy. “The Army, and just leave it at that,” he said. “Vietnam, not good. The Navy turned me down because I wore glasses. One idea of how ugly it was, I trained the people who invaded Cuba, and when Kennedy pulled the air cover off them after the invasion had started, they were slaughtered.”

Sheppard gets calls to do about 15 burials at sea a year. Weddings are among the happier of family events called for, other than private fishing charters on the ocean or the bay.

Star Fish is a custom-built, 40-foot vessel. She is powered by twin Cummins diesels, and equipped with two GPS systems, two fish finders, and marine band and short wave radios, as well as all safety equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Sheppard’s earliest memories are of Carl Adams building one of the family’s boats on the banks of the Mullica River, dividing Atlantic and Burlington counties. Today he teaches seamanship to the next generations. The mates aboard Star Fish are enrolled in schooling.

“We have, I believe, the only junior mates course on the East Coast, supported by West Marine and the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce and private donations,” he said. “We take the kids, age 12 to 17, and we train them at the (N.J.) Maritime Museum for the didactic, and then we do the practicum on the boat.

“It teaches everything they need to know to be a successful mate, which includes knots, rigging, baiting, filleting, how to work with customers and how to quickly relate to customers – and perhaps even more importantly, we teach them the rules of safety on the water.”

To contact Star Fish, call 609-492-2591.

Sheppard himself wants to be buried at sea.


— Maria Scandale

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