Off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida, a city of the dead is rising.
Neptune Memorial Reef is an array of concrete structures infused with cremated remains, designed to form an elaborate underwater cemetery that when complete will cover 16 acres and be able to accommodate more than 125,000 dead. Reef occupants can choose placement in columns, arches, lion statues or mounds shaped like creatures of the sea.
“The most popular are the marine placements,” said Stephen Ziadie, the reef’s Chief Operating Officer. “Everyone wants to be a shellfish or a starfish or a brain coral.”
The Neptune Memorial Reef is a project of the Neptune Society, a U.S. company focused on cremation. Neptune is one of a handful of companies crafting innovative underwater burial sites in warm Florida waters.
The Atlanta-based company, Eternal Reefs, combines an individual’s cremated remains with “eco-friendly cast concrete” to form what the company calls “reef balls.” There are reef ball sites off the coast of Fort Meyers and Miami, as well as Ocean City, New Jersey and Charleston, South Carolina. Loved ones of the deceased gather for a reef casting ceremony and can return to the reef site to dive, fish or examine the structure from a glass bottom boat.
Great Burial Reef memorials stand about three feet tall and are “molded from 100% natural concrete with a natural additive which accelerates undersea marine growth once it reaches the ocean floor.” Their reefs are in ten locations around Florida, including off the coasts of Venice, Port Canaveral and West Palm Beach.
The placement of cremated remains in artificial reefs is a recent trend that may be linked to the economic recession and a nationwide increase in cremations, which are often cheaper than traditional full body burials. Companies all focus on the green aspect of reef burial and the idea that life can beget life. It is a trend that is thoroughly modern, but there are colorful historical precedents, such as the underwater tomb of King Munmu, located in a rocky inlet in the East Sea, off Bonggil Beach, South Korea.
Munmu lived from 661 to 681 A.D. and was the 30th ruler of the Silla Kingdom. He requested to be buried in the East Sea so as to become a dragon and protect Silla from Japanese intruders. Munmu’s remains were buried under a massive granite rock at the bottom of a pool in a cross-shaped channel, although whether his ashes were scattered or placed in an urn is still debated by scholars. “Underwater Tomb of King Munmu is one of the few attractions of Gyeongju where no admission fee is charged and is open all year round 24 hours,” reads one South Korean travel website.
Neptune Memorial Reef has also become a tourist destination; scuba divers come to spot the tropical fish, eels and turtles that feed among the structures. The reef was originally designed by two friends, an avid fisherman and a man named Kim Brandell, a metal sculptor who fashions the large signature stainless steel globes that stand at the entrance to several of Donald Trump’s towers. The reef’s structures are anchored more than 15 feet into the seafloor and are intended to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. The first pieces were erected two years ago. Standard placement in the reef, such as in an archway or column costs $2699; placement in a more ornate structure, like a lion, costs $3999. More than 50% of the 1,100 placements already constructed have been filled.
“People generally think it’s a really cool concept but not everybody wants to be interned in the ocean,” said Ziadie. “But, I’ll tell you; we are seeing a lot of our customers from Florida, but also a lot in the Midwest, who don’t live anywhere near the ocean.”