There are many misconceptions about what burials at sea entail, says Captain Horst Hahn, who dismisses one common assumption that ashes, once scattered into the deep blue, drift on the waves and wash up somewhere exotic where the deceased always wanted to go in their lifetime.

“That’s nonsense,” says the 89-year-old from Hamburg, who has become a pioneer of burial at sea. “When we die and are cremated, we are ground to powder in something like an oversized coffee grinder,” says the captain, comparing the process to the gruesome ending of Max and Moritz, a popular 19th century children’s book.

What remains, he says, are not ashes but granules. “We are pure lime.”In a burial at sea, the human “granules” sink to the seabed and form a little molehill there, he says.

“You are a little white mound that quickly gets covered in sand. The sea wraps you in a cloak of love,” Hahn explains with surprising tenderness in his voice.Gradually, suspended particles, seaweed, wood and “fluffy stuff” cover the human remains and fish even feed on them, though they avoid the lime, he says.

Hahn makes a very persuasive case for his chosen burial method and reels off a list of its advantages: In a cemetery, he says, the grave has to be bought and the contract renewed every 20 years.

“You’ll be thrown into the trash otherwise,” he says, making no secret of his aversion to cemeteries and the companies who operate them.He also warns that even a woodland burial is of limited duration: “A tree stands for about a hundred years, after which it will be uprooted and you will also end up in the trash heap,” he explains to his clients.Hahn describes himself as a pioneer of burial at sea for civilians in Germany. Hahn describes himself as a pioneer of burial at sea for civilians in Germany.

“At sea, nobody cares,” Hahn says, adding that the seabed can be all yours for eternity.

Hahn describes himself as a pioneer of burial at sea for civilians in Germany. Until the 1960s, only navvies and members of Germany’s so-called Water Police were eligible for this form of burial, though the law, which dates from the Nazi era, did allow certain exceptions, which Hahn demanded for himself, eventually asserting his claim in a Hamburg court.

Hahn, a daredevil from a young age, had planned to follow his naval officer uncle’s career path, only to find his plans thwarted when, at the age of 15, World War II ended. The remaining vessels in the German Kriegsmarine were divided up between the allies, and West Germany spent the next decade without a navy of any sort.

At 18, Hahn joined the French Foreign Legion and wound up patrolling the Algerian coast on a French naval boat. Hahn didn’t particularly like military life, however, and eventually deserted one day by jumping overboard and swimming to Gibraltar. From there he hitch-hiked across Europe to the German port city of Bremen where he signed on with a ship, Hahn says.

A few years later, Hahn found himself captain of a cargo freighter that sailed regularly to the Persian Gulf.

Around the same time, Hahn’s uncle died leaving his funeral parlour in Hamburg to Hahn, who, having himself just married and being keen not to be separated from his wife for half the year, returned to Germany in the late 1960s.

Right from the start, he says, customers came in wanting to have their deceased relatives buried at sea. That was when he first offered the service, using his own sailing boat for the ceremonies.

As a boat captain himself, the authorities only asked whether the person Hahn was burying had been in the navy. “I simply said yes,” Hahn says with a grin.

Soon after, he bought a 20m yacht and christened it the “Farewell”. When creating his own burial at sea ceremony for civilians, Hahn borrowed from naval tradition: once at the burial site, the captain rings the ship’s bell eight times. The so-called tolling of the bell signifies the end of a watch on board.

“When a person has died, he has also finished a watch,” Hahn explains.

The urn containing the deceased’s remains is then lowered into the water in a net. This is accompanied by music, often by Freddy Quinn, an Austrian singer who enjoys enormous popularity among the post-War generation for his mournful songs about the sea. The mourners then scatter petals onto the waves, the ship circles them three times and then a final farewell is marked with the ship’s fog horn.

Protecting the underwater environment is important to the captain. The urns are made of either cardboard or unfired clay, meaning both kinds dissolve in the water without releasing any pollutants. Wreaths or bunches of flowers are no longer allowed since Hahn once received a complaint from a local mayor who claimed that funereal bouquets kept washing up on the beach.

Hahn also offers memorial trips for friends and relatives to the spot where their loved one’s urn was sunk. However, Hahn remarks that it’s far less hassle simply to look out to sea to remember the deceased from a so-called Memorial Stone in the nearby resort and port of Travemuende.

Here, as well as flowers, mourners often lay bread or books for the dead, much to the captain’s amusement: “Nobody is reading a book, the dead can’t read, and anyway, they’re out at sea. Nobody’s coming to eat either.”

However, Hahn has more time for certain other sentimental emotions. He buries the ashes of people’s beloved pets with their owners at no extra charge.

Indeed, he himself plans to find his final resting place in the depths of the Baltic Sea alongside his dog, Lucky, whose remains are ready for their final journey in a cardboard box at home. The remains of Max, a beloved tomcat, are similarly awaiting the passing of Hahn’s wife in the same cupboard. – dpa

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