In an excerpt from her book American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning, Kate Sweeney ships out with Eternal Reefs, a company that “mixes the cremated ashes of your loved one with a cement compound to create part of an artificial coral reef”:
The company encourages the bereaved to participate in the creation of the artificial “reef balls,” and to oversee their deliverance into the ocean at one of several designated offshore reef beds. I’m not sure what to expect at one of Eternal Reefs’ two-day reef ball deployment events, so I dress in a gray, nondescript top, black pants, and pearl earrings, and drive to a fishy-smelling dock at Shem Creek off the Charleston Harbor, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Six families have congregated here beside the Thunderstar, our vessel today; they wear vivid sundresses, shorts and t-shirts, and chat away brightly over bottled water and sodas. Eternal Reefs’ staff, including founder and CEO Don Brawley, wear khaki shorts and ironed sea-blue polos bearing the company’s logo.
Despite the preponderance of dark sunglasses on this sunny, muggy morning, the spirit here is not at all funereal. Instead, far-flung family members greet one another with the warmth of long-awaited reunions. Small children abound and mothers rummage through their purses for baggies of Cheerios, juice boxes, and toys. There is a tamped-down sense of thrill in the air, the sort brought on by novelty.