A U.S. Navy Tradition and Bin Laden's Burial at Sea


Osama bin Laden's burial at sea -- the North Arabian Sea -- by the crew of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson drew a lot of attention, criticism and evoked plenty of controversy.

The burial raised many questions as to the motives of the U.S. government and as to whether it was appropriate and whether it violated religious and social traditions and customs.

While the debate over these issues will continue for the foreseeable future, there should be no controversy over an old and honorable U.S. Navy tradition: Burial at Sea.

Burial at Sea is not only a venerable U.S. Navy tradition. It has been an ancient practice as long as man has gone to sea and a military tradition -- sometimes of necessity -- as long as naval forces have plied the open seas for weeks and months at a time. During World War II, the U.S. Navy performed many burials at sea.

Today, Burial at Sea has become quite common as service members, veterans, retirees and others eligible for such include a burial at sea in their final wishes.

According to the U.S. Navy:

Burial at Sea (BAS) is a means of final disposition of remains, that is performed on United States Naval vessels. The committal ceremony is performed while the ship is deployed, therefore, family members are not allowed to be present. The commanding officer of the ship assigned to perform the ceremony will make notification to the family of the date, time, latitude and longitude, once the committal service has been completed.

There are detailed regulations and instructions for such solemn ceremonies. The Navy commits to the sea an average of 20 deceased every month. According to the Denver Post:

U.S. vessels take the remains along with them and do the ceremony while the ships are on their scheduled deployments.

Some people request a specific ship for the burial ceremony...The usual Navy burials at sea are similar, though they include an honor guard that fires shots into the air and bugler that plays TAPS. The burials include caskets or urns with ashes released from the ship's side, as well as ashes scattered from aircraft over the seas.

Larger ships with more space have done multiple ceremonies while on tour, like the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which did 14 burials on Memorial Day 2008 off the coast of Hawaii.

More recently, off the Virginia coast, aboard the amphibious landing ship Gunston Hall, about two dozen sailors stopped what they were doing, changed into their dress whites and gathered in the well deck -- "a cavernous space at the rear of their ship that opens to the sea and the sunlit sky."

According to The Virginian-Pilot, the sailors gathered to "commit to the sea the ashes of four men and a woman contained in five small metal containers."

As each container slips into the waves, seven sailors raise their rifles and fire three shots.

Sailors collect the spent shells to be sent to the family "along with the flag from the service and a nautical chart marking the location of the burial."

Osama bin Laden's burial at sea was, according to the U.S. government, a necessary way to bury the 9/11 mastermind. While I am sure that the crew of the Carl Vinson performed the burial in-as-much-as-possible according to Islamic rules and with the respect owed any deceased, bin Laden's burial at sea will always be viewed somewhat differently from that venerable U.S. Navy tradition: Burial at Sea.

Image: Courtesy