In the harbor of downtown Long Beach, in the shadow of P.F. Chang's and Gladstone's, is a boat parked in dock #5 that caters to a different sort of visitor.
Appropriately named Great Faith, the 48-foot Sea Ray regularly sets off into the rolling seas to scatter ashes of the dearly departed. Captain Johnnie Lee is the owner and operator of Burials at Sea, a vital small business that is probably rarely considered until death comes around.
As it turns out, you can't just throw your loved one's ashes in the ocean — or you're not supposed to. There are regulations, so Captain Johnnie gives families a poignant, efficient and legal way to say goodbye. His first year in business, about 15 years ago, he had 29 customers. Last year he had over 300.
Captain Johnnie used to be a towboat operator, towing distressed vessels in the waters off Southern California (“the AAA of the sea,” as he says). In 2000, when his employer was bought out and his job didn't look too secure, he thought he needed to start his own business. When someone jokingly suggested he should get into burials at sea, he decided to look into it. He called around to companies that did it to learn more. “Basically from the information they gave me, I said, 'I could do better than that,'” he says.
On the weekends, he goes out up to five times each day. It is helpful that the sea scattering trips are good at marketing themselves. “Often when I take a family out, someone will decide right then and there 'This is what I want [for my own cremation]'” he says. “Or later I'll get a call, 'You took my mom out and she left instructions to give you a call when she passed.'”
He says the work can sometimes get to him, especially if it involves a child or was a sudden death. But he knows that he provides a service and helps people, and that makes up for it. “I really believe it's my calling, my niche, whatever you want to call it,” he says.
Each time he sets out, whether with a family, or on a solo trip because family members are unable to attend, he goes through his careful process.
First, he lines a basket with rose petals and then pours the ashes inside. He covers them with more petals and drives out into the sea, about two to three miles off the coast. He looks for a suitably private spot with no other boaters nearby, says a personal prayer and then lowers the basket into the water. The ashes are subsumed by the sea and, very quickly, only the petals remain. Finally, he circles the petals three times so the family can say their goodbyes.
Whether it's the high cost of funerals, or the romance, or the solemnity, sea burials have become increasingly popular. Just 30 years ago, only 5 percent of Americans chose to be cremated. Today, that number is 42 percent.
The average cost for a traditional funeral service is $6,500, and that's not including the cemetery plot or grave marker. The cost for Captain Johnnie's services is $450. The bad economy is actually good for his business.
Originally from Detroit, Captain Johnnie's lived in Southern California for 32 years. He is a seaman through and through — he lives on his boat — though his schedule doesn't allow him to take Great Faith for a spin in the harbor too often. But he's always appreciated the unique peace the ocean offers…at least usually.
“Sometimes the sea will be really rough and I'll apologize [to the family] and they'll say, 'That's OK; that was his personality anyways.”
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