Family tossing flowers off of boat deck at memorial.

If you're looking for a unique way to memorialize a loved one, Sarasota-based Eternal Reefs offers just that—with the added bonus of helping local marine life.

Eternal Reefs, in partnership with The Reef Ball Foundation and Reef Innovations, creates artificial reef balls with the cremated remains of a person who's passed away. Reef balls are man-made materials, designed to replicate the natural elements of ocean reefs and provide marine life with new, replenished ecosystems.

Reef balls are nothing new in the Sarasota area. Reefs have been facing significant deterioration since the late 1980s, when Eternal Reefs was founded. But after the loss of founder Don Brawley's father-in-law in 1998, Eternal Reefs began offering its unique services. Today, the company is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. The average cost per memorial ranges from $2,995 to $7,495, depending on the size. The cost includes "casting"—a process in which the family can mix their loved one's cremated remains into concrete to form a customized "pearl" that sits inside the reef ball—as well as a viewing, dedication and placement on the ocean floor. 

Marine life inhabits the reef balls quickly, Eternal Reefs CEO George Frankel says. "Depending on the environment, we can see marine growth in weeks, and significant growth in as little as three months," he adds.

An Eternal Reefs reef ball

An Eternal Reefs reef ball

Silvertooth Reef, in Sarasota near Big Pass, is home to hundreds of Eternal Reefs memorials, making it the largest "green memorial" in the United States.  In total, there are approximately 2,500 Eternal Reefs throughout 30 permitted locations off the East Coast of the United States. 

Most commonly, those memorialized as reefs were environmentalists, boaters, swimmers, adventurers, sailors or veterans who once served in the Navy. However, Eternal Reefs balls can be for anyone who wants their own legacy—or the legacy of someone they loved—to live on forever. Families can also choose to have spouses or other family members placed together in the same reef, including furry ones.

"The most frequent request is to include beloved pet," Frankel says. "And there is no additional cost to memorialize a pet with its two-legged family member."

It's not uncommon for mourners to associate butterflies, cardinals, dragonflies and other animals as a sign of someone they lost. At sea, dolphins are often seen as carrying signs from beyond, Frankel says. He recalls the story of a family who lost their father. The man left behind many children, including one young girl who had difficulty saying good-bye. She cried through the casting of the reef ball, the viewing and the placement of the ball at sea.

Then, "on the way back to the dock, there was a school of dolphins near the bow of the boat," Frankel remembers. "Everyone was up on the bow watching them except for the girl. She was on the lower deck by herself on the stern.

"As I watched, a dolphin surfaced about 20 feet off the stern and did a tail dance," he continues. "I saw her shoulders stop shaking as she watched that dolphin. When it returned to its pod, the daughter ran to her family on the bow with big hugs." The daughter felt like it was a sign from her father.

"Many tell us our process is as healing for families as it is for the sea," Frankel says.

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