Restoring the Ocean’s Reefs after Death

by M-Gillies
sea turtle swimming past Eternal's Reef's reef balls

A sea turtle swims past an artificial reef which is the final resting place of people who wanted to spend eternity in the sea.

Over the years, it seems environmental awareness has been extending its reache beyond just the actions conducted by the living but also how we memorialize our dead in an attempt to minimize the carbon footprint we make during our time on Earth.

Ever since Al Gore appeared on screen with his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, awareness toward global warming has only increased. People have become more aware of the looming dangers threatening our environment as they continue to become more informed and educated. But the movement didn’t begin with Al Gore. In fact, the roots of environmentalism can be traced back as far as 1739, though it wasn’t until 1980 that awareness of global warming and other climate change issues began to grow as a movement.

Before Earth Day and School Eco Clubs and long before An Inconvenient Truth, there was a pair of college roommates from the University of Georgia, who during their spring break, would go to the Florida Keys for what would become their ritual diving trips. Over the years Don Brawley and Todd Barber were struck with disbelief over the rapid deterioration of the coral reefs they so enjoyed visiting. But it was those sights that soon inspired an idea within Brawley.

At first, it was simply just discussions amongst the two friends as to what could be done to ensure the protection and restoration of these ecosystems. They spoke of a material and a system that would replicate the natural marine environment — one that could support coral and microorganism development repairing the manmade damages inflicted upon it, such as pollution, discarded debris, destructive effects of dropped anchors and motorboat propellers.

What happened after that was an idea that soon blossomed into company, which produced environmentally sound artificial reefs. Using a patented mold that closely mimicked natural reef formations, along with special design features to allow sea life the ability to attach and grow on these reef structures, the Reef Ball was soon created. It was these artificial reefs that would directly rehabilitate and rebuild dying reefs and further create new habitats within the marine environment using hollow domelike modules resembling perforated concrete igloos.

new artificial reef balls placed in the ocean

James Albury checks the placement of new reef balls off the coast of Sarasota.

While Reef Ball Development Group and Reef Ball Foundation completed their first project near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1990, it was a comment made by Brawley’s father-in-law that would push the company into a new direction — the practice of body disposal.

It was during the late 1990s, when Carleton Glen Palmer, Brawley’s father-in-law was diagnosed with liver cancer. As a devoted deep-sea fisherman, Palmer had asked his son-in-law to take his cremated ashes, mix them into a reef ball and sink him into the ocean.

As Palmer once said, “I’d rather spend eternity down there with all that life than in a field with full of dead people.”

So after his passing, he got the sendoff he had asked for.

That’s when Eternal Reefs was formed. Located in Atlanta, Georgia, Eternal Reefs, Inc. has only grown since its inception 15 years ago. With more than 1,500 Memorial Reefs in 20 locations off the coast of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia, the company provides an alternative, and environmentally enhancing way of memorializing the cremated remains of loved ones.

Using an environmentally safe cast concrete, Eternal Reefs uses the cremated remains by mixing them into a cement mixture used to cast the artificial reef. But the process isn’t one that can be left to Eternal Reefs alone. Much like burials and scatterings acting as a memorial ritual shared by family members, Eternal Reefs allows families and friends an opportunity to participate in the process by adding their loved one’s ashes to the fresh concrete as it’s being poured into the mold. This can even include leaving a handprint or writing a message on the reef as it’s drying.

Once the reef has hardened, it is then transported to its final resting place, where it is dropped into the waters to form a permanent habitat for the local sea life. To correspond with the reef ball, it is adorned with a bronze memorial plaque affixed to the module, along with a certificate giving the precise longitude and latitude of the reef’s location for future visitations.

reef ball with person's name on plaque has become part of the ocean's eco system.

A bronze plaque identifying the person memorialized is inlaid in a reef ball made by Eternal Reefs.

So why is Eternal Reefs an option that is good for you? Simply put by the company itself, “(Eternal Reefs) believes the greatest celebration of life is to provide the opportunity for new life, and the living-breathing legacy of a Memorial Reef is a dignified and meaningful environmental memorial for a loved one. If the idea of creating a meaningful contribution that will help to heal the sea and benefit future generations, an Eternal Reef is an ideal memorial choice.”

“As President John F. Kennedy said, we are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea… we are going back from whence we came.

To learn more about Eternal Reefs, visit their website at:

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