Scattering ashes at sea on the rise in Myrtle Beach area

Grand Strand

The Atlantic Ocean, as pictured from Huntington Beach State Park. (Source: Braley Dodson)

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — John Jaques sails the Enchantress out of Little River in the morning. It’s quiet. The sea is calm. Three miles off shore, he stops, lets families have a moment and plays “Amazing Grace” over the intercom. 

Last year alone, he made 50 similar trips to let families scatter ashes on the waves. 

“I think that sailing itself has some magic for the human soul,” said Jaques, the captain of the Enchantress and owner of Enchanted Sailing Charters. “I think this is an incredible way for someone to watch their loved ones pass from this moment to the next, and to sail quietly on the water and think that we are all human beings.”

Jaques estimates that trips to scatter remains make up one-fourth of his business.

Although there is no way to know how many ashes remains are scattered at sea each year — Jaques’s number of customers alone is higher than the number reported to the Environmental Protection Agency — it’s a trend that appears to be on the rise.

There have been 269 people whose cremated remains have been spread off South Carolina’s shores since 1980, according to information from the EPA. There were four whole-body remains buried at sea during that same timeframe, the most recent in 2017.

The federal agency issues permits under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act to allow for the burial and spreading of human remains at sea. The required permits allow for non-cremated and cremated remains to be transported and buried at sea under certain conditions. 

The EPA’s numbers show a spike in ashes spread sea during the 1990s, when 179 permits in South Carolina were filed. That dropped off sharply to 39 permits during the 2000s, while rising slightly to 43 in the 2010s. 

The last few years have generally seen a gradual increase. Three permits were filed in 2016, two in 2017, seven in 2018 and 12 from May 2019 to December 2019, according to the EPA. There were eight permits filed last year. The EPA must be notified of a sea burial within 30 days of the event, which means that number could still rise. 

Officials with the EPA were not available for comment before deadline.

The agency has several requirement for burying remains at sea, including that they must be scattered or buried more than three nautical miles from shore. It also bans items that aren’t biodegradable, like plastic flowers. Animal remains are not allowed. 

Whole-body remains must be either wrapped in a natural fiber shroud or a sail cloth and then have additional weight attached to allow the remains to sink to the ocean floor. For casketed remains, the EPA recommends using metal ones with at least 20 two-inch holes drilled into them so they can quickly fill with water and sink. In total, the casket and remains must be, or have weight added, to be at least 300 lbs, and must also be tied with at least six stainless steel bands, chains or ropes. 

Jaques, who has been sailing the Enchantress out for more than a decade to scatter ashes, has seen the number of families remain steady over the last few years. 

Each family is different. Some party and laugh. Others are quiet and cry. But there’s one thing that each journey has in common.

“Something magical seems to happen every time,” Jaques said. “You see a dolphin or sea turtle or jellyfish, or rainbows, or something. There is something that happens that touches everyone when they go out.”

Families usually talk about their relative as they sail out. Once they’ve reached a spot, Jaques makes sure the boat isn’t powered on, the sails are up and the Enchantress is positioned in a way where ashes can be spread with minimum turbulence. They spread the ashes, place flowers and then return back.

Most of the families, he said, aren’t local.

“Generally, it is someone who fell in love with Myrtle Beach on vacation, and vacation here every year, and wanted their ashes spread off of Cherry Grove or off Myrtle Beach,” Jaques said. 

It’s something he plans to have done with his own remains. Jaques said he already knows where he wants his scattered.

“I think it is a natural way to spread ashes because it is so beautiful,” he said.

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