Burial at sea

Scene: burial at sea Burial at Sea, c.1854. Charles Lyall.

Burial at sea in the nineteenth century was necessarily a quick and practical means of disposing of bodies, but it contradicted Christian notions of a ‘good death’. Devout Christian immigrants viewed with dread the prospect of burial at sea, which they described as being ‘thrown into the deep’. Moreover, a watery grave provided no lasting memorial at which relatives could grieve.

While the nature of the ceremony could vary depending upon the weather and the sea, most deceased persons were committed to the deep with respect and dignity. If conditions allowed, the surgeon assembled all the crew, passengers and officials on board to hear the Captain read the burial service, during which the enshrouded and weighted body was slipped overboard. In less favourable conditions, when storms could rage for days and it was too dangerous to assemble everyone on deck, the surgeon read the burial service in his cabin and the body was committed to the sea through his porthole.

The need for haste to limit the spread of disease and the manner of disposing of bodies during storms could appear perfunctory. This is misleading as most passengers and crews were genuinely saddened by shipboard deaths. It was not uncommon for sailors to show their feelings during committals and captains and crews often wept when children were buried. It was also customary to suspend music and dancing on burial days. There is, however, evidence of indifference to the death of at least one unpopular passenger. When the twentieth emigrant died on the Sarah’s voyage to Sydney in 1849, she was ‘Heaved over soon after she died and there were no symptoms of regret for her…’ as ‘she had lost her reason…and become idiotic.’

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Image credit: Burial at Sea, c.1854. Sketch by Charles Lyall. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

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