MIAMI—More than three miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, a small island village neighboring Miami, a 33-foot catamaran bobs in the Atlantic. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and while his crew of scuba divers do maintenance on a group of buoys, Capt. Jim Hutslar plans to scatter the ashes of a few recently deceased individuals in the water over the Neptune Memorial Reef, a large, artificial, rocky structure that resembles the lost city of Atlantis.
Beneath the glassy surface, 76 columns and a menagerie of stone-carved marine life span several acres of ocean floor at a depth of 40 feet. The carvings are made from a mix of concrete and the cremated remains of dead people who chose Neptune as their final resting place, Hutslar explained to The Daily Beast.
Lately, those people have inevitably included a surge of coronavirus victims in one of America’s worst pandemic hot zones.
“It has been busy,” said Hutslar, who was involved in building Neptune and works for the funeral company that owns it. “For the last six months, every month has seen more people choosing to do burials at sea… I don’t have an exact count, but we are seeing record numbers.”
While Hutslar said he didn’t know how many of those being laid to rest at the artificial reef were COVID-19 related, he figured it was a majority. “Lately, we’ve been adding a couple hundred deaths a day, most of which are in South Florida,” he said of the state’s COVID-19 totals. “Since Miami has been hit hard, our parent company has been sending folks to help us with the workload.”
And with Florida coming off its deadliest week of the pandemic, local burial and funeral workers like Hutslar are hoping to serve as an alternative to overflowing morgues and temporary corpse containers that have become a fixture in hot spots across the country. On July 31, Florida’s Department of Health reported 257 deaths, breaking the state’s fatality record for a fourth straight day. After two consecutive days of dipping back under 100 daily deaths, the Sunshine State reported 245 deaths on Tuesday.
The old guard of traditional funeral homes in Magic City have been feeling it, too.
Patrick Range II, manager and general counsel for Miami-based Range Funeral Home, said last week he was nearing his capacity. “What we try to avoid is having families wait for long periods of time before having services and final dispositions of their loved ones,” Range said. “We try to encourage them to make a final decision so that we don’t have a backlog. Those limits are being tested.”
Donald Van Ordsel, president of Van Ordsel Funeral and Cremation Services, a funeral home chain based in Miami-Dade County’s unincorporated Kendall neighborhood, said the local system for processing death was in shambles. “Because there are so many COVID cases, it’s taking longer for doctors and the medical examiner to approve death certificates,” Van Ordsel said last month.
As funeral homes see their limits being tested, and as a never-ending season of pandemic death casts a shadow over the country, burials at sea are experiencing their own surge in demand. Dawn Mergelsberg, the Miami boat captain who owns a company called New Choice Burials, has been scattering ashes at sea for more than 13 years. In the past month, she’s done approximately 20 scatterings, she told The Daily Beast. “At least half of them were COVID deaths,” she said.
It’s a lonely goodbye for folks who use Mergelsberg’s services: She usually allows up to six relatives to accompany her to the scattering site, but because of the pandemic, no outsiders are currently permitted on her boat. “It’s to keep them, myself, and my first mate safe,” she said. “We will take photos and give them a certificate with the nautical coordinates of their loved one’s final journey. For some folks, they want to get closure as soon as possible.”
Brad White, a captain who helms New England Burials At Sea, which conducts ocean farewells nationwide, said his company was getting a flood of requests to hold ceremonies in the fall and winter months—with the hope the pandemic’s impact might have lessened by then.
“We are seeing a greater number of requests in the panhandle area from Panama City to Destin and on the starboard side of the Florida coast from Palm Beach to Cape Canaveral,” White told The Daily Beast. “We have about a dozen requests for a full body burials at sea, but we are delaying any of those who died from COVID until we hear from different funeral associations that it is safe to do so.” In the meantime, New England Burials at Sea is—like other players in the aquatic funeral scene—holding ceremonies that center on the scattering of COVID-19 victims’ ashes, he explained.
Unlike Mergelsberg, White said he was currently allowing up to 10 to 15 passengers on large vessels that allow for proper social distancing. “That is typically the size of any group attending a sea burial,” White said. “Many don’t want to put family members in jeopardy, so they are postponing what is a perfectly portable event.”
Hutslar, the boat captain and dive instructor who manages Neptune Memorial Reef, said his employer, Service Corporation International, the largest funeral home company in America, limits sea burials to eight people. “We’ve had 20 to 30 families postpone because of the restrictions,” Hutslar said. “But we are still busy.”
The pandemic hit Hutslar close to home. His office manager caught coronavirus and had to quarantine for two weeks, he said. And a friend, a local funeral director in her forties, was recently felled by the disease, he said.
“She just died after spending 10 weeks in ICU care,” Hutslar told The Daily Beast. “Even a ventilator didn’t help her.”
While details of her final arrangements were still being ironed out, Neptune will be her final resting place, Hutslar said.
“That was her wish: to be part of the reef.”