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Become one with the ocean after you die

A diver swims down to inspect a reef ball

Coral growing from a reef ball, creating a vital underwater eco-system. All photos courtesy of Eternal Reefs, www.eternalreefs.com, and the Reef Ball Foundation, www.reefball.org.

The phrase ‘watery grave’ may be taking on a new, more positive meaning. If you’re looking for a special way to be remembered, reef balls can let you become part of ocean life after death.

By incorporating cremation ashes into reef balls, which are specially-designed concrete structures, Florida-based company Eternals Reefs is giving people a way to become one with the vibrant underwater life that thrives on coral reefs.

Scientists estimate that up to nine million species of plants and animals rely on coral reefs to survive, either as a place to live, hunt or breed. However, in recent years, marine biologists have been desperately trying to save natural coral reefs around the world, which are under threat from overfishing, pollution and climate change. Already a quarter of the world’s reefs are considered damaged beyond repair, with two thirds of those remaining considered under threat.

A scuba diver inspects coral growing from a reef ball Beautiful natural coral grows from a reef ball, providing a perfect habitat for all kinds of sea life.

This environmental catastrophe caught the attention of two college roommates from the University of Georgia in the US. Both avid scuba divers, they would go diving off the Florida Keys during college breaks and, over the years, noticed the unmistakable decline in coral life. They decided to take matters into their own hands and founded the Reef Ball Foundation.

The reef ball was designed as a strong artificial base to grow man-made reefs, mimicking nature’s design as closely as possible. The ball is made from environmentally-safe cast concrete, with a rough textured surface to encourage marine microorganisms to take hold and begin cultivating life. Once these tiny organisms are established, the artificial reef will begin to flourish with life, including natural corals, crustaceans and fish.

A boat with a crane lowers reef balls into the sea Reef balls are carefully placed in specific ocean locations to cultivate new coral reefs.

Don Brawley, one of the co-founders of the company, realised that reef balls could be more than just a groundbreaking eco-innovation when his father-in-law, Carleton Glen Palmer, talked about having his cremated remains put in a reef. Soon afterwards his father-in-law passed away, and Don made the first memorial reef ball. It was placed in the Gulf of Mexico and is now home to thousands of colourful sea creatures.

Since 1998 Eternal Reefs has placed over 1,500 memorial reef balls off the coast of the US, near Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas and Virginia, giving new life to the ocean. Overall, the Reef Ball Foundation has placed more than 700,000 reef balls in over 70 different countries, providing a vital support for dying reefs.

The process of creating a memorial reef ball involves casting the eco-friendly concrete and incorporating cremation ashes. Families are invited to attend and be as involved as they’d like in the casting and viewing of the finished reef ball. Many choose to put handprints and other memorabilia in the damp concrete and make rubbings of the memorial plaque and even write messages on their loved one’s Eternal Reef with chalk.

Three children place flowers on a memorial reef ball Families can view and decorate the memorial reef ball before it is placed on the ocean bed.

The family can also board a boat and watch as their loved one’s reef ball is placed in the ocean. They watch as the concrete dome is lowered into the water, where it will find its place forever on the seabed. Designed to withstand tidal currents and powerful ocean storms, the Eternal Reef is quickly populated by underwater inhabitants and can have meaningful growth in as little as three months. After the reef ball is placed, families cast flowers into the sea and say their final goodbyes.

Eternal Reefs are available in three different sizes and start at around $2,995 (about £2,400). The largest is four feet high and weighs nearly two tonnes. Eternal Reefs also has many requests for pets’ cremation ashes to be included with their owners’, and happily accommodate their wishes for no additional fee.

Families can also be present for a dedication ceremony to observe their loved one's memorial reef ball being placed.

Although Eternal Reefs is based in the US, they have worked with five families from the UK. Four families brought cremation ashes from the UK and travelled to Florida for the dedication. The other family’s loved one was living in the US at the time of their death and close relatives came to the States for the memorial.

For more information on coral reef memorials, visit www.eternalreefs.com.

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