Green Guru: How Eco-friendly Are Reef Ball Burials?

Courtesy of

Green Guru: How Eco-friendly Are Reef Ball Burials?

Things to consider before burying your loved one at sea.

By Susan Cosier
Published: January-February 2012

Is using concrete to build reef balls an eco-friendly way to be buried?

Elizabeth Wyman, Chicago, IL


Whether one's final resting place is on land or at sea, the burial process can be surprisingly energy and chemically intensive. Yet there are some environmentally friendly alternatives, like burials in biodegradable caskets or at sea, and reef balls may prove to be one of them. 

Those who opt for interment in an artificial reef are first cremated. Then their ashes are mixed with concrete and molded into a reef ball--a hollow, holey structure that's up to six feet wide and five feet tall. It sits on the seafloor, ideally creating marine habitat and preventing erosion. Family members often hold a memorial service when the reef ball is placed offshore. A number of companies partner with the Reef Ball Foundation, a nonprofit focused on reef rehabilitation, for such burials. (The foundation doesn't just do interments--in April, for instance, to prevent erosion, it installed pure-concrete structures off of Bird Island for Audubon of Florida.) 

The ecological benefits are still being studied, but in degraded areas some artificial reefs have been shown to attract fish. "Depending on the site, the first thing that settles is algae and diatoms," says Robin Sherman, a Nova Southeastern University biologist who has studied artificial reefs. "As they set up housekeeping, you get what eats them, like shrimp and other invertebrates. Then the fish will come." 

The downside is that they're made from cement. Cement plants generate 2.4 percent of the world's CO2 emissions, and global cement production is about two billion metric tons a year; each of the 200 or so funerary reef balls laid annually uses at least a quarter of a ton. A traditional burial has its cons, too, including toxic embalming fluids and steel caskets.

For a truly eco-friendly option, consider a biodegradable casket or shroud--or forgoing one all together (see "Dying to Be Green," September-October 2010).

Send your vexing questions to

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Susan Cosier

Susan Cosier is former senior editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @susancosier.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Artificial reefs do help to

Artificial reefs do help to restore fish stocks and they are a wonderful tool to help marine ecosystems. Living Reef Memorial is a company who manufactures artificial reefs for those who choose cremation on the west coast. I like this company because their company is all green. From the recycled materials used in their molds to make the reefs to the sailboats they use to deploy the reefs. I think the best thing I like about the company is that all proceeds benifit their sister company Sea Turtle Rescue. It is like a double whammy for the enviroment.

Reef Ball Oasis

Ahoy all,

Id like to add some 1st hand commentary on reef balls. I helped place and monitor a dozen reef balls in the Bras D'or Channel in Cape Breton Nova Scotia about 10 years ago. within 10 minutes of placing them I did a dive and photographed lobster moving into them. Over the years we have been diving the site and I can attest to the marine plant growth and both shell and fin fish living there. This is on a seabed of flat featureless silt the reef balls here are an oasis of life.

All other things considered I believe the hundred plus years life span of these structures will contribute bio mass and oxygen to the marine environment of such quantitates as to far out weigh any initial carbon footprint.

I work and play in on and under the ocean and see this as a positive for the watery part of my home.

Comments on Reef Balls

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments!

reef balls

Cremation is not eco-friendly fossil fuels are used at a very high rate to fuel most crematoriums it takes a lot of fuel to bake a human body to ash.

You are very right, cremation

You are very right, cremation is not very eco friendly. So many people are choosing cremation, what are we to do? Maybe with today's scrubbers and other enviromental safeguards society may be able to continue to cremate without harming our enviroment. Another school of thought is the the footprint you leave behind. Is that footprint going to continue to hame the planet or can a burial be choosen that will continue to benfit the planet, whatever that is. Reefs, tree planting, and so on seem to be able to provide something that traditional burials do not. I think of it like mitigating the damage you have caused this earth in life and when we choose these types of burials we are now reversing the negitive footprint. I am very concerned about what I am going to be leaving behind and I certinally would not want to leave an envirometal debt for the next generation. For me, choosing a green burial that leaves this planet a more healthy place is the only way to go.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.