Geert by sea
It took two weeks and endless bureaucracy to honour a dying wish
If you punch these co-ordinates into Google Maps, the icon hovers like a red hot-air balloon over a sea of blue. The Pacific Ocean. No land in sight. That’s the point; this is where the continental shelf falls away to the deepest of deep. It’s hard to imagine what the bottom is like. A cold desert of sand, perhaps? The midnight zone? We are putting our father there.
Not his ashes.
“I came by sea, I might as well leave by sea,” my sister recalls him saying.
“Geert by sea,” says my brother, a riff on our father’s Dutch name, anglicised to George on arrival.
Don’t leave me in a grave that no one will visit, our father said.
That’s a bit harsh, but we got the idea.
A sea burial then.
Three hours out by boat to the continental shelf. His casket waits on the deck of a boat chartered from Merimbula, on the south coast of New South Wales. We are steaming east, under albatross escort. I travel with my brother – we have eaten little more than Kwells all day – plus the charter’s crew, the funeral director, and his young employee who will help with the lifting.
Just a few Australians – 22 in the past six years, according to the Department of the Environment and Energy – opt for a sea burial. It is something of a specialised service because of what the department describes as “considerable logistical difficulties”. We found a funeral director in Merimbula, Mark, who had done a few. A cremation in Tasmania would be easier, he advised gently. Then you can scatter his ashes in Tasmania or he can travel with you in your hand luggage to New South Wales.
This is no time for convenience, said my brother. He wanted a sea burial.
I relayed the decision back to Mark. Last thing on our father’s bucket list, you might say.
OK then, Mark said, the first thing you need is a permit. You can only fit a few family and friends on board. And be prepared to wait for the right conditions.
We should have listened more closely to that third point.
The Department of the Environment and Energy website states that a burial at sea requires a “sea dumping permit” under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981. The Act also instructs that the final resting place be at least 3 kilometres down, away from shipping traffic and fishing nets. For this, the department will organise a unique location, hence the specific co-ordinates, as part of the permit that costs $1675.
The department also advises that permits are generally only granted to those with a demonstrated connection to the sea, such as long-serving navy personnel or fishermen. No one asks us to provide proof with our application.
In this era of seabird bellies filled with plastic, and decaying nuclear reactors left on scuppered submarines, there is some irony to what we are told the dead can wear on their final voyage. No synthetic clothing or anything else that might rise from the resting spot to choke a whale. Nor can the deceased be irradiated or otherwise soaked in pharmacological toxins, as many are at the end of their lives.
So, our father travels in simple cotton clothes and is wrapped in unbleached, sturdy calico as per the instructions in the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide, which the Act regards as gospel on the matter of burying the dead at sea. The guide describes the way a person should be prepared for the sea: “interlock the fingers over the thighs. The hair should be brushed off the forehead, the face washed” before the person is “sewn into the shroud”. For someone who spent his life in textiles – our father knew the hum of Melbourne’s Flinders Lane when it was the heart of Australia’s rag trade, before macchiatos and single origin, when people slurped International Roast at desks cluttered with ashtrays, fabric samples and consignment notes – it is apposite that he would depart this life wrapped in cloth.
Cremating our father in Tasmania – where most of his kids live, but a place that he never liked much – would have been the much simpler solution. He died on a sunny morning, the light bouncing around my Hobart house, Christmas feast leftovers still under Glad Wrap in the fridge. But he never felt comfortable in Tasmania. He wasn’t the type for a suburban funeral parlour either, so that added another obstacle. The solution, then, was to get our father back to the south coast of New South Wales.
Our family and most of his friends are scattered around Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, so the Seahorse Inn, a hotel perched on the sand near Eden, seemed equitably inconvenient for all of us. The south coast was where George had stood in cut-off jeans at dusk, a sentinel with his surf rod and a cigarette stuck between sun-dried lips.
“Can you call back tomorrow?” The young woman who answered the phone at the Seahorse Inn was incredulous when we asked if we could book a memorial service. “We have a New Year’s Eve party tonight, and I have to find another DJ.”
The next day, her incredulity hadn’t softened. “I haven’t slept since you last called, and you want to book this now?”
Try arranging a funeral when the rest of the country is booking DJs and babysitters for New Year’s Eve. Lose another week when two states present a tangle of differing legislation when it comes to cadavers. The Department of the Environment and Energy does not permit embalming, and domestic airlines don’t carry the un-embalmed, so it was Geert by sea out of Tasmania, too. Then up to Merimbula via another tangle of state laws regarding death certificates.
It would be easier to have a cremation and travel with your father in your hand luggage. But expediency should have nothing to do with it.
By the time we all gathered at the Seahorse Inn it had been two weeks since our father had died. After the service, the adults sat outside in the sun and the children swam in waves tempered by the bay. But further out, the blue horizon bulged with a decent swell. We would have to wait for it to drop. Family and friends went back to their homes and their summer plans. My brother and I returned to our father’s house to begin the sorry business of packing away his life while we waited for the right conditions.
Days went by. Friends phoned, asking if I was back in Tasmania yet.
“It’s taking ages, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is.
This is no time for expediency.
On Google Maps, if you zoom out a little from the icon marking our father’s final resting place, Merimbula appears to the west. From there our twin-engine charter boat ploughs towards the edge of the continental shelf. And a good south wind sprung up behind; The Albatross did follow. I have been watching their wings trim the flick of the waves since we left. Black-browed albatross, one of the smallest, and most common, of a species better known for size and rarity. Then again, I’ve read that they are long-lived and have a strong bond to kin, so they strike the right note for our father. And there is little else to watch in a heaving swell.
On Google Maps’ satellite setting, the shelf falls from cobalt to contours of indigo and inky black, where the cliffs and ravines of the continent drop away. On board, it is just a rolling grey swell that makes some of us look anxious and a little gaunt. Our father, wrapped in calico, waits in a coffin on the main deck. Like he waited in Hobart. Like he waited at the funeral home for the right conditions. His coffin is anchored to points on the main deck where, I am guessing, ice-filled eskies are usually tethered.
The engines are switched off and the boat is bumped by the swell. This is it. This is 36.55043 S, 150.32148 E. Out on the edge.
It has been three weeks since our father died and I am wrung out. All that raging grief is spent, so now my heart is skint. Mark, the funeral director, draws us around the coffin and in a few words brings a sombre dignity to the gathering. In the sudden quiet after three hours of engines, as the wash of waves slaps against the side, in the company of men and the absence of anything resembling a service, our father’s request is finally honoured.
The back of the boat swings open, the front of the coffin drops like a drawbridge and, in a fleeting glimpse of calico, our father slips from the boat and disappears beneath the blue.
“He will drift for some time,” says my brother. Think how long it takes to walk 3 kilometres. Rather than sinking straight down, he will glide in the weight of water, and travel the undersea rivers that flow down to the seabed. It’ll take a while to reach the midnight zone.
It is a long journey back to shore, too. The sky is grey, the sea is deep, the albatross have not left our wake. Behind the boat, the twin engines churn the foam and I think of the idea of a wake, of taking the right amount of time to bury your dead. To not fit their passing around the convenience of the living, to not get it all over and done with too quickly. I am tired beyond words. I want to go home to a sun-filled house in Hobart.
Would I recommend a sea burial? I am not sure. Perhaps some left his service wishing it was all done and not drawn out past the week, past the horizon. Would I recommend this final journey undertaken with our father? The hours, six in all, spent away from the reach of land, the phone and the expectations of others? The chance to watch the albatross? To reflect on our father’s life and my life, and how the oceans connect the world? The comfort in knowing I can stand on any seashore, anywhere in the world, to visit our father’s grave?
Now that we are closer to land, the silver gulls have come to greet us. They circle, peering down at the deck to check our catch. Sorry, lads, but our buckets are empty, and it’s time to go home.