Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ashes on the Sea: A conversation with Ken and Anya Shortridge

Ashes on the Sea is a San Diego based company that has been providing ocean scatterings of cremated remains since 1997.  Proprietors, Ken and Anya Shortridge are leaders in their field, and have helped many families to create meaningful and memorable rituals in scattering their loved ones remains at sea.  They have graciously agreed to share a conversation about their work on The Daily Undertaker:   

Ocean Scattering Ceremony

Pat McNally: Have you seen an increase in the number of people who choose to scatter at sea since starting your service?

Ken & Anya:  Yes, undeniably. 

PM: What are some of the ways people choose to place the ashes into the sea?  Could you describe for us how this takes place?

  • This is usually one of the first questions families ask us about. On most of our services, the family chooses the “basket” method. The ashes are placed in a lined basket – we have plastic liners as well as the basket can be lined with green plant leaves. The ashes are placed in the basket. Rose petals are then placed over the top of the ashes. We usually arrange the basket as soon as the family begins boarding, as the basket is really quite lovely to look at while motoring out, much nicer than a temporary urn. We have a mechanism attached to our baskets which allow the basket to be lowered down into the water, and then just beneath the water line the basket is tipped. The ashes flow out, the rose petals float to the top for a beautiful display. This method also minimizes issues with the ashes blowing back into the boat and onto the guests.
  • There are various biodegradable urns on the market, such as Journey Earthurns, Shell urns, Batesville urns, just to name a few. Sometimes the family comes to us with one they have already purchased. We also have them available for purchase if that is what the family wants. The urn is placed in the water, or lowered down. It usually does not take long for the urn to sink. Flowers are then placed in the water afterward, giving everyone a display to look at. This method is usually chosen by families whose religious beliefs require the ashes to all go in together, not scattered. Other families choose this when they are particularly sensitive to seeing the ashes at all.
  • Other families choose a vase to pour out the ashes, instead of using the plastic bag inside their urn. The ashes are transferred from the urn into the vase, rose petals are placed on top, and at the location of disposition, are poured out. This actually allows for some very ornate “ash clouds” beneath the water, especially when visibility is very good.
  • One of the most unique methods using the basket we have seen is where the family puts the ashes in the basket, but then passes the basket around to the whole family. Each family dips into the ashes with either their bare hands or by using a sea shell and scatters the ashes like that…

Ken and Anya Shortridge

PM: For many of your clients, is this the only memorial ceremony they will participate in?  What percent have already and a funeral or memorial service?

K&A: Our families come from both sides of that story. We don’t have an actual percentage, but would estimate about 75% of families have already had a previous service. Now they just want something simple for the very immediate family. On the other hand, in 2010 we noticed and increase in families coming to us where this is the first and only service. We are hoping that, by providing funeral directors with detailed information about our services and developing a trusted relationship, they will be able to set it up from the outset, especially when they know that the family is planning to scatter the ashes. Families may feel rushed to come to a decision quickly, leading to more than one service. But if that is what they want, more power to them. Of course, in today’s economy, it may be more cost effective to hold one service.

Waters of the Pacific Ocean

PM: Do you work along with funeral homes, or do families usually come to you after the funeral home’s involvement is over with?

K&A: Most of our families come to us after the cremation has taken place or is scheduled to take place. We initiated a project in 2009 which generates a “final disposition” letter to each funeral home that originally served our families. This has resulted in much more interest directly from funeral homes. The letter contains the decedent name, date of death and a copy of the disposition information, including GPS coordinates, for the funeral home file. We think it is important for this information to be kept in the file at the funeral home, because if family members come looking for information about the decedent in the future, the funeral home is the most likely place where they will look first. 

PM: I see that you work in conjunction with Eternal Reefs- what type of services do you offer along this line and what have been your experiences with it?

K&A: We are an Eternal Reefs provider and have gone back to Florida to train with George and the crew for some exciting projects that we aren’t at liberty to discuss yet J. We can say that our five-weeks of experience back east were extremely exciting. We were able to take part in every step of the Eternal Reefs process: The casting, where the families come and help to build the Eternal Reef ball. We got to see a military honors for one family, which takes place when the reef balls are being loaded onto the vessel. Also, the dedication and placement, where we joined the families in placing the reef balls at sea. In our years of experience with the different ways to have a “burial at sea,” the Eternal Reefs process and service involves families the most. All of the families disembarking the boat after the placement were very satisfied and happy. 

Eternal Reefs Project

PM: What is the value for families in participating in a service like yours?  What kind of benefits have you seen, or comments do you receive?

K&A: The peace on the water has to be one of the biggest benefits. The feeling of being out at sea in the wide open fresh air brings a sense of relief and calm that you cannot experience in a room or next to a gravesite. Rarely has a family come back to the dock gloomy. On the contrary, they are laughing, appreciative, and even taking pictures with the captain and boat.

Financially speaking, scattering at sea is one of the lowest cost disposition choices.

“This is just what he (she) would have wanted” and “This is exactly what we were looking for” are comments we receive all of the time. We have a drawer full of thank you cards and notes, emails, and Google Places messages sent from the families. Many of our families keep in touch with us because they have become like family. We often get families who come back to us years later when the need arises again…

Biodegradable Wreath

PM: Have you seen any changes in the types of ceremonies or the level of family participation in services since you started in 1997?

K&A: For sure. Families want to participate much more, and more often now call with specific ideas and plans. Frequently, the family wants more guidance (It is typical to hear “I have never done something like this before”), and we provide that to them. We present each family with our “Family-led Services” booklet that helps guide them in the direction they feel is right.

Sometimes families want to involve their children, but they do not know how. We recommend involving the kids from the beginning, based on age and maturity. We often suggest creating a biodegradable wreath together, and provide step by step photo of how to make one. Another way to encourage participation in the service is to have family members, including children, compile photos and memorabilia for scrapbooks and other memory projects which can be brought to display on the boat. The “unique” service is really becoming the norm. Families are more particular in the way they honor their loved one. And that is the way it should be!

Cremated Remains wrapped in a water soluble material are released into the sea 

PM: Have any families made requests that surprised you or inspired you to broaden your range of offerings?

K&A: Absolutely! We are all across the board with this one. A few years back we had a family that brought a detailed, balsa wood model of Viking Ship. They envisioned putting the ashes in it and lighting the wooden boat on fire. They wrote notes on rice paper, put little biodegradable trinkets in the boat. We scattered the ashes and then let the boat sail away… Since then we always suggest the rice paper notes to our families and it goes over really well. Rice paper is a food product and thus is biodegradable.

PM: In my work as an undertaker, I often see a sort of emotional arc taking place with  a lot of emotional tension building up before and during a service, which is released towards the end and at the grave, or reception following the service.  Have you noticed anything like this in your work? 

A wake of flowers and ash

K&A: Generally speaking, people come to us in a good state of mind. The emotion comes out almost surprisingly when the boat gets on location and while the ashes are being scattered. There is almost always at least a span of 10-15 minutes or so of complete silence, reflection, and tears. Great emotional outbursts are not common. Lots of tender embraces, sighs, and bringing up old stories are the norm. On the way back in, things are usually pretty happy and jovial. You could say that it is usually more solemn headed out, and at peace coming back in.

PM: In your opinion, are funeral homes currently providing families with the kind of services that are meaningful and helpful to them?  Do you have any ideas on how we could do a better job?

K&A: Honestly, we don’t know what all funeral homes are offering, but we’ve definitely noticed a shift in various funeral publications and blogs focusing on the need for change in the industry. The current financial situation, as well as changes in consumer  beliefs/feelings as to what is a “proper” funeral, requires all of us in this industry to look at other ways to create streams of income while still serving the needs of families. This is one reason why we do not have a hard and fast “service.”

You will be glad to hear that almost every family that comes to us is satisfied with the service they received at the funeral home. This is good.

Can we speak frankly? Here is our main frustration: Although we don’t “know” this to be true, we “feel” as if we may be looked upon as competition. But there are so many ways we can actually compliment the services offered by the funeral homes, and our services are always discounted to funeral homes. So, the funeral home has a choice to either let the family call us directly, or sell the service on the spot. The latter is what we would like to see happen, so that the family doesn’t have to talk to so many people and the flow of information and discussion runs smoothly from beginning to end.

We have flyers (PDFs) all ready for funeral homes to be handed to the families for each of our boats and services.

Most of our families that come to us have found us on their own using Google, meaning when they left the funeral home they did not know which direction to go. Perhaps the funeral home did not know of the family’s wishes for a scattering at sea. Or is it that the F.H. did not know how to educate the family on their choices? Do most funeral homes feel their job is “done” at cremation? We don’t know. We would like to know. In any case, we believe we would all benefit from more of collaboration, and it is the families who will benefit the most.

On the Sea

PM: You operate in a kind of niche market and must function as a kind of ‘destination’ business as well.  I imagine that not everyone would entertain the idea of an ocean scattering, but that those who do become passionate about it.  Similarly, many who live in landlocked areas may never even consider this option.

Do you have many clients who come a great distance to use your services?

K&A: Yes! We have had people email us or call us from England, the Netherlands, Germany, and other countries. The one that stands out in our minds, though, is the little lady who came all the way from Japan. Her husband’s favorite destination was San Diego. She came in on the flight with his small urn, went out on the service, and then flew back home the same day. On the other hand, most of our out of state services come from Arizona & Texas, coastal California being one of the closest and most temperate vacation spots for nearby states. Last reporting year, 4 of our services came from outside of the U.S.

PM:  Do you see death care as fragmenting out into more individualized niche options in the future?

K&A: Yes, it is really the way things are going. Green Burial, Home Funerals, Burial at Sea, and even more creative options are already here or coming (Turn your loved one’s ashes into a record album?)

PM:  What do you find to be the most beautiful or powerful part of an ocean scattering experience, and why should people consider it for themselves or loved ones?  

K&A: There are so many powerful elements to a service at sea. Let’s start with the sea itself! The sea is dynamic. It always changes and is never the same. The diverse sea life we are privileged to see changes each time we go out, and from season to season. Often seagulls come down to inspect the rose petals. We have seen large flocks of pelicans diving for sardines as the dolphins are feeding from below. We have had the dolphin come over to see what is going on wanting to play with the boat.

It is interesting that each family finds special meaning and comfort by the things they see and experience while on this journey.

More on beauty and power: Certainly, the family coming together and speaking about their loved one is a most powerful facet of the service. We have had families come together who may not have been getting along before this day. On land, you can “escape.” Not so on the ocean. There is nowhere to go. This is a good thing! A powerful thing. The ocean brings them together.

Too, when the ashes are scattered, they create a beautiful underwater cloud, with the flowers, rose petals or wreath floating on top. No “ash cloud” is ever the same. It may surprise some of your readers to visualize an “ash cloud” being beautiful, but we have found it to be so.

The peace and tranquility of the ocean, the water lapping at the boat, the swaying of the ocean lends itself to the quiet reflection of all the family as we just drift a while and watch the flowers float on and away.

It may be fitting to end with a quote from Ken from chapter 4 of the book “Grave Matters, A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial” by Mark Harris, Dec 9, 2008

“You’re on this wide open sea on a beautiful day. Birds are flying overhead; sometimes dolphin are swimming alongside the boat. Only once in the thirteen years that I’ve been leading scatterings at sea has a family ever returned to the dock afterwards with tears in their eyes. It’s a totally different atmosphere than you have at a land-based funeral.”

My Thanks to Ken and Anya for sharing their experiences and insights.  Please visit their website for more information.  Please also visit their partner, Eternal Reefs to learn about their amazing Reef Ball projects.

For more on Ocean Scattering follow the link below for a story about ocean scattering from the perspective of a family member:

Ashes and Sea


George said...

Ken and Anya and Eternal Reefs were introduced to each other by Mark Harris while he was writing Grave Matters. We have had the pleasure of working with Ashes on The Sea and refer all of our west coast ash scattering requests to them. They have been GREAT to work with.

I also echo their sentiments regarding the funeral industry. Both Ashes on The Sea and Eternal Reefs are post cremation memorials. They are value added services that can both enhance profitablity from cremation and significantly improve customer satisfaction.

Our experiance is that families are rarely presented options for final disposition of cremated remains. The funeral industry is going through huge changes and collectively needs to embrace the value added final disposition alternatives to improve profitabilit and the consumers experiance.

Thanks for a great article, George

Maureen said...

Wonderful interview!

I can imagine participating in any one of the events as Ken and Anya have described them and feeling as deeply moved, and also satisfied in the most heartfelt way, by the beauty and majesty of the occasion.

Thank you for sharing their story and their insightful perspective on the unique niche they occupy. I love what they're offering.

Lenette said...

Pat, thanks for presenting an informative interview and beautiful option for memorial service.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Contact Me

My photo
Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.