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Water Today Title January 27, 2021

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Update 2018/9/2


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By Michelle Moore

Reef Ball

As part of our series on green burials, WaterToday is taking a look at the non-profit Eternal Reefs; a Florida-based company that combines cremation, ash scattering and burial at sea.

Green burials are on the rise in North America and are being promoted as a more ecological and natural alternative to conventional western funeral practices.

In April 2017, the National Funeral Directors Association's Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study revealed that 53% of people surveyed said they would be interested in exploring green burial as an option.

Green burials involve a formaldehyde-free embalming process and the use of only biodegradable products to promote the natural decomposition of the body.

The Eternal Reefs program is part of the Reef Ball Network, a group dedicated to promoting the health of the reefs of the Florida Keys. They are also part of the Green Burial Council.

It began in the 1980's, when a couple of divers witnessed the deterioration of the reefs over time. The pair set to work developing a structure that would mimic natural reef formations to promote growth, called Reef Balls.

CEO of Eternal Reefs George Frankel said there were two main challenges; "will it be stable in the marine environment and stay where it is put and what is it that Mother Nature is looking to use as a palate for her artwork?"

The first Reef Ball project was completed in 1992 near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Now there are over 700 000 reef balls in more than 70 countries. Reef balls are made from concrete and have a textured surface that allows coral and microorganisms to attach and grow.

Frankel said "this texturing allows these micro organisms a place to land, burrow in and start to mature and propagate before predators can feed on them. In a few short years the Eternal Reefs will have developed into a permanent natural reef system."

Reef Balls are designed to sit at the bottom of the ocean with 80% of it's weight focused in the bottom of the structure. The Reef Balls used for Eternal Reefs for instance are at least 750 pounds.

The Reef Balls are round, hollow and vented to prevent the build up of energy during storms. "While we won't say Mother Nature can't do something, we do believe that if she moves these Reef Balls around, that there is much more damage and concerns about what would have happened on land."

It was a family member that first made the request that their remains be integrated into a Reef Ball when they died. When they died, one of the founders Don Brawley, set himself to work mixing in their cremated remains or cremains into one of their Reef Balls.

As word got out, people began showing interest in doing the same for their own burial, and Eternal Reefs was created. Some of the people attracted to the idea have been sailors, fishermen, military veterans, environmentalists and divers.

Frankel said "Eternal Reefs provides an environmentally positive memorial that will help to preserve, protect and enhance the marine environment for future generations."

While cremains have been found to contain high pH levels, he said "Reef Balls are made of a proprietary marine grade concrete with special additives that bring the pH content of the concrete close to neutral."

Family members can help mix a person's cremains into a Reef Ball and personalize the memorial with written messages or hand prints in the concrete before it sets. Shells, pebbles and even some memorabilia items can be pressed into the cement as well.

After a service, the family takes a boat trip to the location they've chosen and the reef ball is lowered by crane to the seafloor. Eternal Reefs can only be placed in certain locations that are designated as recreational reef sites for fishing and diving.

Frankel described a watershed event occurring in the funeral business; with more and more people becoming interested in the idea of combining their memorial with some kind of conservation effort, called conservation memorialization.

"Significantly less expensive than traditional burial, conservation burial is the land based version of Eternal Reefs. We work with the Green Burial Council, who is focused on land preservation much the same way Eternal Reefs is focused on ocean preservation. Together we form the Surf and Turf of the natural burial movement," said Frankel.

Reef Balls promote marine growth within a few weeks after being submerged and serve as a way for a person's remains to contribute to new life. Eternal Reefs says families tell them the process is as healing for them as it is for the sea.

As part of their larger Reef Ball Network, helping with the stabilization of the shoreline, preventing beach erosion, restoring water quality, and even mangrove restoration, are just a few of the ecosystem services Reef Balls can provide.

The City of Tampa has been using Reef Balls to protect their sea walls and create a surface for oysters. Frankel said "reef balls are used worldwide for erosion control ... the Reef Ball design is perfect for most erosion control and beach re-nourishment projects.

He added, "again, because of their stability and the design allowing for water to flow through them, they can trap the sand washing through and maintain it on the beach side of the reef ball."

Reef Balls can also be built with larval recruitment aids for fish and lobster, fish spawning pinnacles and special surface textures for coral settlement.

The shape of the structure helps too, he said "the holes allow the juvenile fish a place to retreat and hide from predators. The holes also create water flows that bring nutrients and food to the juvenile sea life hiding inside."

Eternal Reefs has seen a significant growth year after year. The hope is that as awareness of conservation memorialization grows, the option of an Eternal Reef will become a mainstream choice. This Memorial Day, Eternal Reefs dedicated the On Eternal Patrol Memorial Reef, an undersea memorial to all 65 of the lost United States Submarines and the 4 000 people aboard who were never recovered.


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