Burial at Sea


The custom of the burial at sea is the most solemn of all naval ceremonies. Historically, sailors often spent long periods at sea in close proximity to one another developing strong, long-lasting ties and the loss of a shipmate would have both a deep emotional and practical impact on the crew.

The American lawyer and politician, Richard Henry Dana Jr, described the effect of the loss of a shipmate in his memoirs, 'Two Years before the Mast', recounting his time as a merchant seaman in the 1830s:

Death is at all times solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A man dies on shore; his body remains with his friends, and “the mourners go about the streets”; but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness in the event, and a difficulty in realizing it, which give to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies on shore - you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something which helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed. A man is shot down by your side in battle, and the mangled body remains an object, and a real evidence; but at sea, the man is near you - at your side - you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then, too, at sea - to use a homely but expressive phrase - you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.


While some ancient pagan burial rites were conducted at sea, burials at sea have, historically, been conducted only through necessity and are a comparatively recent practice. In most ancient cultures the preferred method of burial, even for those who died at sea, was on land where very specific funeral rites could be observed. Even the popular vision of a burning Viking longboat carrying the deceased across the sea to Valhalla is something of a fallacy. Vikings, especially chieftains and others of high rank, were often buried or cremated aboard a seafaring vessel; but these vessels were normally hauled on to the shore where the traditional funeral rites could be observed and the deceased, along with the boat, were either buried or cremated on land.

Sea travel in Western Europe up to the end of the 15th century was largely confined to the waters of the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. A port, and the ability to transfer any deceased sailors ashore, was never far away. As ships began to embark on ever longer voyages, however, keeping the deceased on board in the knowledge that a port would soon be reached, became impractical. Faced with the reality of being at sea potentially for weeks at a time and with no practical way to preserve the body, there was no alternative but to conduct a burial at sea. Yet, even after burials at sea became an accepted part of maritime life, extraordinary lengths were sometimes gone to in order to repatriate some deceased individuals for burial on land. Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson, the Royal Navy’s hero of Trafalgar, was fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet during the battle and died later that day, 21 October 1805. Nelson’s body was preserved in a cask of brandy and the cask lashed to HMS Victory’s mainmast where it was guarded night and day until Victory reached Gibraltar. There, the corpse was transferred to a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits and remained in Gibraltar while Victory underwent repairs. It was not until December that Victory, with Nelson’s body embarked, arrived back in Britain. Nelson was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 9 January 1806, more than two months after his death.

Just as funerals on land are highly ritualised affairs, rich with symbolism and metaphysical meaning, so such services developed at sea with their own rituals, symbolism and meaning, unique in the context of maritime life. To the superstitious sailor in the age of sail, the service needed to not only honour the deceased but protect the ship from the spirits of their former shipmates, potentially angered by a perceived slight following their death, and from the bad luck that would follow any ship in which the dead were embarked.

The solemn task of preparing a body for burial at sea often fell to close shipmates of the deceased.
The solemn task of preparing a body for burial at sea often fell to close shipmates of the deceased.

A death on board a ship is normally reported by the ship’s surgeon or medical officer to the officer of the watch who in turn reports it to the captain. The exact position of the ship at the time of death is recorded in the ship’s log.

The elements of a funeral service at sea closely follow those observed on land. Adhering to this process comforted the deceased’s shipmates, maintained social cohesion and provided loved ones at home the cold comfort that their sea-faring family and friends were being properly laid to rest.

The body was prepared for committal by the sailor’s former messmates before the ship’s sailmaker was called upon to sew a canvas shroud, usually the deceased’s own hammock, around the body. A weight, often two round shot from the ship’s stores but any heavy object would do, was also sewn into the shroud at the corpse’s feet to ensure a rapid descent. The last stitch was sewn through the deceased’s nose. Folklore tells us that this was done in order to avoid any chance of sending a living person overboard while in a state of catalepsy, the shock of the stitch passing through the nose supposedly being enough to revive the patient from a catatonic state. However, the real reason was probably more pragmatic; to prevent the body from slipping out of the canvas.

For many years it was customary for the sailor who sewed the shroud to be paid a guinea a body for the task, though no regulations appear to exist in support of the custom. After the Battle of Jutland, for example, a rating aboard HMS Castor was paid 23 guineas from the public funds for performing this task for 23 deceased shipmates.

The national flag was laid over the deceased with the canton positioned over the left shoulder. The ship would normally stop for the funeral service and the ship’s yards cockbilled, a symbolic deviation from the norm, and the White Ensign lowered to half mast. As on land, the body was carried feet first to the site of the service on the lee gangway. All members of the ship’s company attended the service occupying whatever space they could with the sailor’s former messmates taking the places normally reserved for the deceased’s family, flanking the body. The body was placed on a grating and the ship’s chaplain or, if a chaplain was not available, the captain performed the service from the quarter deck.

A committal of HMAS Hobart crewmen in the Pacific during World War II.

The service proceeded in much the same way as a funeral services on land, the major difference being the committal of the body. Whereas on land, the body is committed

...to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...

at sea, the body is committed to the deep:

We therefore commit this body to the deep to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead and the life of the world come…

At the words “commit this body to the deep” two seamen lifted the inboard end of the grating while holding the flag so the body slipped from under it and into the sea. The exact wording of the committal has changed slightly over the years to reflect social attitudes. At the conclusion of the service, the ship’s company was dismissed, the yards straightened, and the ship would resume its passage.

It is not known when sailors first started to alter the wording of the committal, but the first formal alteration appeared in the 1662 edition of the Anglican 'Book of Common Prayer', the first edition of the Prayer Book to contain a section of prayers specifically for use at sea.

Where lives were lost at sea and the body, or bodies, were never recovered, it was and remains common for memorial services to be conducted both on land and at sea. To this day, RAN vessels will conduct a memorial service at or near the site of a shipwreck in which RAN sailors lost their lives.

Many Australian sailors have been buried at sea, most during the world wars. One of the first Australians to fall in World War I, Signalman Robert Moffatt, died on 12 September 1914 after succumbing to a gunshot wound he had suffered the previous day while fighting ashore in Rabaul. He was buried at sea from the main deck of the flagship, HMAS Australia (I).

The burial at sea of Signalman Robert Moffat from the main deck of the flagship HMAS Australia, September 1914.

Captain Emile Dechaineux, captain of HMAS Australia (II), was buried at sea on 21 October 1944, along with 29 other officers and sailors all of whom had been killed earlier in the day by Japanese kamikaze aircraft at Leyte Gulf, Philippines. Captain Frank Getting, captain of HMAS Canberra (I), was also buried at sea after he was mortally wounded by Japanese shell fire on 9 August 1942. The former Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Wilfred Hastings Harrington, was buried at sea, as per his request, on 20 December 1965 after passing away on 17 December. HMAS Vampire (II), escorted by HMAS Derwent (II) with mourners and press embarked, departed Sydney that morning to conduct the burial service 16 miles off the coast. The service was attended by no less than ten serving and retired Admirals, as well as the Minister for the Navy, the Hon Fred Chaney, MP, and other senior officers from all three services. http://seapower.navy.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/Navy_News-January-7-1966.pdf.

Left: Vice Admiral Sir Wilfred Hastings Harrington's funeral procession. In accordance with his wishes, Vice Admiral Sir Wilfred Hastings Harrington was buried at sea from the deck of HMAS Vampire, December 1965.

In today’s navy, ships are normally able to make landfall quickly, or use their embarked helicopter to transport a body to land for repatriation. Consequently burials at sea are uncommon and the ceremony is rarely conducted. In the event that circumstances were such that a burial at sea became necessary it would first require authorisation from the Chief of Navy (or the relevant service chief of the deceased), the Chief of Joint Operations, or a higher authority.

The last burial at sea from an RAN vessel occurred at 5:00pm on 21 June 1976 for Seaman Andrew Spencer, who had passed away two days earlier, in HMAS Vampire (II) while the ship was en route to the United States.

A practice related to burials at sea is that of having ones ashes spread at sea. Many former sailors often request that, following their death, their ashes be committed to the sea. It is not unusual for some to request that their ashes be committed at the site where their old ship has been sunk, or from a current ship bearing their former ship’s name. On 6 August 2014, for example, the ashes of the late Harold Moss and his wife, Pearl, were committed to the sea from the flight deck of HMAS Parramatta (IV). Harold was one of 23 survivors from HMAS Parramatta (II) when she was torpedoed by the German U-Boat, U-559, off the coast of Libya on 27 November 1941. He was one of four Parramatta (II) survivors who were the guests of honour at the commissioning of Parramatta (IV) on 4 October 2003.

The families of deceased ADF personnel, and Royal Navy personnel, may request to commit the ashes of their family members to the sea, on service land, or to the air. Details regarding making these requests may be obtained by contacting Defence Member and Family Support (formerly Defence Community Organisation - DCO).

ble Seaman Marine Technician Decklan Lethborg scatters the ashes of former Royal Australian Navy sailor Michael Alfred Duncan S8051, during a memorial service after HMAS Newcastle departed Sydney, New South Wales in early 2015.
Able Seaman Marine Technician Decklan Lethborg scatters the ashes of former Royal Australian Navy sailor Michael Alfred Duncan, S8051, during a memorial service conducted on board HMAS Newcastle in waters off Sydney in early 2015.

Further reading

  • 'Defence Instruction (General) - PERS 20-6 - Death of Australian Defence Force Personnel'.
  • 'Defence Instruction (Navy) - PERS 05-2 - Casualties - Injuries, Death, Boards of Inquiry, Inquests and Post-mortems'.
  • 'Australian Book of Reference (ABR) 5078; The Navy at Worship', (3rd ed), Defence Publishing Service, Canberra, 2007.
  • 'Australian Defence Force Publication (ADFP) 1.1.1 - Mortuary Affairs'.
  • 'Defence Casualty and Bereavement Support Manual (DCBSM)'.
  • Beckett, Commander WNT, MVO, DSC, RN. 'A Few Naval Customs, Expressions, Traditions and Superstitions' (2nd ed), Gieves Ltd, Portsmouth, circa 1931.
  • Campbell, Commander AB, RD, RN. 'Customs and Traditions of the Royal Navy', Gale & Polden Ltd, Aldershot, 1956.
  • Dana, Richard Henry, Jr 'Two Years before the Mast and Twenty-four Years after' Vol. XXIII, The Harvard Classics. New York: PF Collier & Son, 1909-14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/23/.
  • Lovette, Vice Admiral Leland P, USN. 'Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage' (4th ed), United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, 1959.
  • Prior, Russ. 'Naval Customs and Origins', unpublished, copy held at the Sea Power Centre - Australia.
  • Pryor, Johnathan. 'Burial at Sea: A Study of Sea Burials During the Age of Sail', Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 2008, https://twp.duke.edu/uploads/assets/Pryor.pdf.
  • Stewart, David James. 'Rocks and Storms I’ll Fear No More: Anglo-American Maritime Memorialization, 1700-1940', Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, 2004, http://anthropology.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2016/07/Stewart-PhD2004.pdf