There are many misconceptions about what burials at sea entail, says Captain Horst Hahn, a veteran of the campaign for the right to burial at sea himself, and he is keen to dispel the myths surrounding this form of burial, rejecting a common assumption that the ashes, once scattered in the deep blue, drift on the waves and wash up in an exotic place where the deceased always wanted to go during their lifetime.
“It’s nonsense,” says the 89-year-old Hamburger, who has become a pioneer of burial at sea. “When we die and are cremated, we are reduced to powder in something like an oversized coffee grinder” , explains the captain, comparing the process to the gruesome ending of Max and Moritz, a popular 19th-century children’s book. What remains, he says, are not ashes but pellets. “We are pure lime.”
During a burial at sea, the human “granules” sink to the bottom of the sea and form a small molehill there, he says. “You are a small white mound that is quickly covered with sand. The sea envelops you in a mantle of love,” Hahn explains with a surprising tenderness in his voice.
Gradually, suspended particles, algae, wood and “fluffy stuff” cover the human remains and fish even feed on them, although they avoid the lime, he says.
Hahn presents a very convincing case for the burial method he has chosen and lists its advantages: in a cemetery, he says, the grave must be purchased and the contract renewed every 20 years. “Otherwise, you will be thrown in the trash,” he says, making no secret of his aversion to cemeteries and the companies that operate them.
He also warns that even a burial in the woods also has a limited duration: “A tree lasts for about a hundred years, after which it will be uprooted and you will also end up in the trash,” he explains to his customers.
“At sea, nobody cares,” Hahn says, adding that the seabed can be yours for eternity.
Hahn describes himself as a pioneer in the burial at sea of civilians in Germany. Until the 1960s, only navvies and members of the so-called German water police were eligible for this form of burial, although the law, which dates from the Nazi era, allows certain exceptions, such as Hahn himself demanded, eventually asserting his claim in a Hamburg court.
Hahn, a daredevil from a young age, had planned to follow the career path of his naval officer uncle, but his plans were thwarted when, at the age of 15, World War II ended. . The remaining ships of the German Kriegsmarine were divided among the allies, and West Germany spent the next decade without a navy of any kind.
At 18, Hahn joined the French Foreign Legion and ended up patrolling the Algerian coast on a French navy boat. Hahn was not particularly fond of military life, however, and ended up deserting one day by jumping overboard and swimming to Gibraltar. From there, he hitchhiked across Europe to the German port city of Bremen, where he signed on with a ship, Hahn says.
A few years later, Hahn became captain of a freighter that regularly sailed to the Persian Gulf. About the same time Hahn’s uncle died, leaving his funeral home in Hamburg to Hahn, who, having just married and not wanting to be separated from her for half a year, returned to Germany in the late 1960s.
From the start, he says, clients came wanting to have their deceased loved ones buried at sea. It was then that he first offered the service, using his own sailboat for the ceremonies.
As a ship’s captain himself, authorities only asked if the person Hahn was burying had been in the Navy. “I just said yes,” Hahn said with a smile.
Soon after, he bought a 20-meter (65.6 ft) yacht and christened it the Farewell. When creating his own burial-at-sea ceremony for civilians, Hahn borrowed from naval tradition: once at the burial site, the captain rings the ship’s bell eight times. The so-called ringing of the bell signifies the end of a watch on board. “When a person died, they also finished a watch,” says Hahn.
The urn containing the remains of the deceased is then lowered into the water in a net. This is accompanied by music, often by Freddy Quinn, an Austrian singer who enjoys enormous popularity among the post-war generation for his mournful songs about the sea. The mourners then scatter petals on the waves, the ship circles them three times, then a final farewell is signaled by the ship’s foghorn.
The protection of the underwater environment is important for the captain. Urns are made of cardboard or unfired clay, which means both types dissolve in water without releasing pollutants. Wreaths or bouquets of flowers are no longer allowed since Hahn once received a complaint from a local mayor who claimed funeral bouquets kept washing up on the beach.
Hahn also offers memorial trips for friends and relatives to the place where their loved one’s urn was cast. However, Hahn remarks that it is much less complicated to simply look out to sea to remember the deceased from a so-called memorial stone in the resort and port of Travemuende.
Here, in addition to flowers, mourners often leave bread or books for the dead, much to the captain’s amusement: “Nobody reads a book, the dead can’t read, and anyway, they’re in sea. No one comes to eat either.”
However, Hahn has more time for some other sentimental emotions. It buries the ashes of people’s beloved pets with their owners at no additional cost. Indeed, he plans to find his last home in the depths of the Baltic Sea alongside his dog, Lucky, whose remains are ready for his final journey in a box at his home. The remains of Max, a beloved cat, also await the death of Hahn’s wife in the same closet.