Neptune Memorial Reef to enlarge the underwater burial area three miles off Key Biscayne, Fla.
MIAMI — You can sleep with the fishes. By choice.
It's the only way to go for those who want to return to the sea whence we came.
Miami's Neptune Memorial Reef, a final resting place like no other, is expanding. One day, the cremated remains of 250,000 souls will be tended by angel fish, guarded by moray eels and visited by scuba divers in a scenic 16-acre city of the dead three miles off Key Biscayne.
"My mom always wanted waterfront property and now she's got the best," said John Hink, whose 86-year-old mother, Edith Hink, passed away in 2008. Her remains were placed in a Greek column at the reef and her family of avid divers regularly swims down to pay their respects. "It's a stunningly beautiful, uplifting, meditative place."
When the elder Hink was in hospice care, she decided she did not want to be buried six feet underground. She wanted to go 40 feet under water. She's among 600 deceased people whose ashes have been placed in various types of cement molds used to build the artificial reef that is now home to 80 species of fish and corals.
"We told her, 'Dolphins will be swimming around you,' and she said, 'That's where I want to be,' and we said, 'We'll join you, eventually,' " said Vicki Hink, Edith's daughter-in-law. "It's a life for a life. You're creating a living reef."
Neptune Memorial Reef opened at the designated artificial reef site in 2007. The design theme at the outset was the Lost City of Atlantis. There's an entrance, archways, columns, a giant globe, lions, statuary. Marine life — including a rare type of sea urchin — has attached itself to the structures and is thriving. Parrotfish, black beauties and green morays are among the residents.
"It's not really a cemetery and it's not really a mausoleum," said Jim Hutslar, Neptune operations director. "It's a tribute reef."
As Neptune launches the next phase of its master plan — expanding from less than an acre to its original EPA, NOAA and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission permitted size of 16 acres — customers can choose from 11 types of molds with inscribed copper plaques to hold their ashes, including brain coral, seashell, starfish, turtle and stingray. A turtle named Crush and rays named Desi and Lucy live on the reef. A mermaid mold is on the drawing board.
The cost of a single placement, in which ashes are mixed with cement into the mold, starts at $1,999. Neptune also offers "Scatter at Sea" options for as low as $595, which includes scattering ashes in open water above the reef with a plaque placed on the reef. It's less expensive than a traditional burial in a casket that can cost upwards of $5,000.
"We have a lot of couples, and you can have a couple and a pet in one placement," said Melissa Pitalo, market director for SCI Funeral Services, Neptune's parent company, which runs 2,500 funeral homes and cemeteries. "It's common for us to have pets mixed in.
"If a family wants to be together you can purchase a reserved space ahead of need. We have a family of five that died together in a car crash. We have a lot of Navy and Marine veterans. Boaters, fishermen, people who love the ocean, people who love the outdoors. We have people from Kansas who tell us, 'My dad loved the beach.' "
Pitalo cited Florida's cremation rate of 60 percent, which has doubled in the past 20 years.
"Cremation is a choice that's trending upward," she said. "In the case of Neptune, when you go out on the water to celebrate a life, it's extremely beautiful and tranquil. It's green, it's eco-friendly, it's giving back to the earth. Families return and see coral growing and know that their loved one is the foundation of the reef."
Neptune is a popular dive spot and Hutslar wants to construct a dive platform for instructors. Boats can tie up to four moorings; anchoring and spearfishing are prohibited.
The Hink family of Fort Lauderdale has 14 places reserved in a column for that time when they'll never need to surface for air.
"With cremation, you can plan your memorial service and it's a joyful way to say goodbye. You don't have to pick a coffin and lower it into the ground within a few days when you're in a distressed mode," Vicki Hink said. "I think cremation is more appropriate today and people are not as rigid about religion. You go by these cemeteries, see all the headstones. We don't have much land to spare."
And diving on the reef beats visiting a graveyard.
"We swim down and clean off the plaques, wipe off mom's plaque, and a triggerfish pokes out to say, 'Don't mess with Edith.' She's got her protectors," John Hink said. "Can you think of a better place to spend eternity?"