WOODBINE — Steelmantown Cemetery is nestled in the woods of Cape May County.
The cemetery, the first and only natural burial preserve in the state, is anything but a traditional cemetery. Headstones and memorials are replaced with trees that serve as memorials for people who have died.
Ed Bixby, owner of the cemetery and president of the Green Burial Council, became interested in natural burials after visiting a family burial place only to find it overgrown and not well kept. This inspired him to start “Tree of Life Celebrations” in 2007, in which families mix the cremated remains of their loved ones into the soil to grow a tree in memory of that person.
“This all started right here in South Jersey. We’re helping institute a cultural change by environmentally doing something good, while also creating a memorable send-off. Of course, you’re going to be grief-stricken, but you can change the way you celebrate that person and the life that they lived,” Bixby said.
After burying people from all over the country, even people from Paris, right here in South Jersey, Bixby decided he wanted to offer a water option for natural burials, which is how he came across Memorial Reefs International.
The company offers families an ecofriendly burial option for their loved one by constructing artificial reef memorials using reef balls. The giant, marine-friendly cement balls serve as the final resting place for a person’s cremated remains. The most recent location is in New Jersey, which means people from the Northeast now have a reef within a reasonable distance.
Steve Burkoff, one of the owners of the company and executive director said “our clients are building a living legacy for their loved one that will last a lifetime.”
Many clients mix their loved ones’ ashes into the concrete that gets placed inside the reef ball, which then gets dropped into the ocean. Some people even add mementos or photos to the wet cement as the company’s approach to death is to have the family be involved with the creation of the memorial as much as possible.
“When the ball gets placed, fish move in almost immediately. And then usually within six months we start to see algae and plant life start to develop,” Burkoff said.
The company picks its locations based on where people like to spend their time when they’re living and also places that need the most restoration. There are memorial reefs in Florida and Texas; Baja, Merida and Cozumel, Mexico; British Columbia and Ontario, Canada; Venice, Italy; and now in New Jersey, right off the coast of South Jersey.
Memorial Reefs International is also an ally of the Reef Ball Foundation, so together there are over 3,000 other locations across 70 different countries. The client chooses the area they want their loved one to rest, and the company deploys the reef ball at that location.
Dillon Bobo, a lift truck operator from Southern Ontario who laid his mother to rest at the Mexico location, said, “My mom never really cared what happened to her after she died, all I knew was that she wanted to be cremated. My way of thinking, and I know my mother would agree, is that you’re going to be gone, so why not turn into something positive for the Earth? She also always wanted to go to Mexico, so I figured it would be a good sendoff for her.”
People who use Memorial Reefs International even have the option to dive and visit the reef ball to see how many corals have grown while also paying respects to the person buried. The company provides the family with the GPS coordinates so they can visit the site, just as they would for a traditional grave site.
Natalie Melham, a Texas resident who dropped a reef ball for her dad in Moderra, Mexico, in 2018 said, “It was such a beautiful experience. The thought and care that they take when developing the reef ball and deploying it in the ocean is equivalent to how a mortician takes care of a body and prepares them to be viewed at a funeral. We were all planning to go back to the reef, but COVID changed everybody’s plans.”
No reef balls have been deployed in New Jersey yet, but Bixby and Burkoff said they are preparing to drop reef balls about seven miles off the coast of Ocean City, to honor the first responders through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rather than the reef balls serving as a memorial, which they usually are, these reef balls will also act as a form of gratitude.
“The reef balls that we are dropping in Ocean City are namely for appreciation,” said Bixby. “But we are going to allow that memorialization if you do have someone who passed from COVID. We’re encouraging families to participate.”
To contact Memorial Reefs International, call 877-218-0747 or visit memorialreefs.international.