OLR Research Report

March 19, 1998 98-R-00442

FROM: Susan Price-Livingston, Research Analyst

RE: Burial at Sea

You asked what law or regulations apply to burials at sea and specifically whether ship captains might conduct them.


State public health laws generally govern the handling and recording of human remains after death, and prescribe regulations and licensing procedures for funeral directors, embalmers, and facilities in which human remains may be cremated. Those regulations are beyond the scope of this report, but it appears that they must be followed before human remains may be placed on board a ship for burial at sea.

State environmental protection laws govern burials in waters within three miles of land, while federal laws govern those occurring between three and twelve miles from shore. What follows is a general description of the law in this area, a copy of the federal regulations, and a document describing the Navy's burial at sea program. As you know, the Office of Legislative Research cannot issue legal opinions.


We contacted Robert Smith, Bureau Head of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Department of Water Management. He reported that while there are no specific DEP regulations, any person wishing to conduct a burial within state waters would first have to obtain a permit from the department. To the best of his knowledge, no one has ever requested a permit for this purpose, but individuals with specific questions may contact him at (860) 424-3704.


We also contacted John Thorne, a public information officer in the United States Coast Guard's Washington, D.C. office. According to Thorne, federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations permit all persons owning or operating a vessel registered in the United States or flying the United States flag to transport human remains from any location for the purpose of burial at sea.

The regulations require that cremated remains be buried in waters (1) at least three nautical miles from land and (2) within certain specific geographic limitations if the burial is to take place in the vicinity of St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral, or Dry Tortugas, Florida; or between the Mississippi River Delta and Pensacola, Florida. Burial of human remains that have not been cremated must be in accordance with those restrictions, and must also take place in water that is at least one hundred fathoms (six hundred feet) deep. All necessary measures must be taken to ensure that the body sinks quickly and permanently to the ocean bottom. Flowers and wreaths may also be thrown into the sea, so long as they are made of materials that will rapidly decompose in the ocean.

All burials made in U.S. waters must be reported within 30 days to the regional administrator of the EPA for the region from which the ship carrying the remains departed.