DNA sampling rule considered for sea burials

Burial at sea off the Needles, isle of Wight The Needles spoil site - a marine graveyard - is the country's most popular sea burial site

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Taking DNA samples from bodies to be buried at sea could become a legal requirement, in a move being considered by the government.

The proposal was first put forward by the Isle of Wight Coroner in 2006 after six bodies buried at sea washed up there over four years.

A site off the Needles is one of only three licensed sea burial sites in the UK.

The proposal is being considered by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).

The organisation is working with the Home Office on the plan.

The other two sites are off Tynemouth, North Tyneside, and between Hastings and Newhaven in East Sussex.

Fishing gear risk

In September, the body of a woman buried at sea off Jersey was recovered by a lifeboat seven nautical miles north of the island.

The MMO, which controls and issues licences for all sea burials, said in a statement: "Unfortunately, despite the steps which must be followed prior to a burial at sea taking place, there is still a risk of the body being returned to shore or being caught up in fishing gear.

Number of UK sea burials

2013 - eight (until September)

2012 - four

2011 - four

2010 - 11

2009 - nine

2008 - 11

2007 - 16

2006 - eight

2005 - 15

2004 - 13

2003 - 14

2002 - 21

2001 - 16

Source: Marine Management Organisation

"Such rare events naturally cause considerable distress to relatives, friends of the deceased and all concerned, as well as considerable cost to the relevant authorities to identify the body.

"DNA testing prior to a burial at sea taking place is being considered as a proportionate and cost-effective measure in order to enable the identification of any remains, should the need arise.

"We are working with the Home Office to ensure possible processes are as straightforward and cost-effective as possible."

A spokeswoman said more details on the plan would be announced in the new year.

A newsletter from the Home Office Pathology Unit issued to coroners' offices stated that once the requirement was introduced, the DNA would be stored on the missing persons database so that any remains washed up could be easily identified.

John Lister, managing director of Devon-based Britannia Shipping Company, which specialises in sea burials, said he had hardly ever heard of bodies later washing up.

The firm carries out the majority of sea burials in the UK, and the Needles spoil ground is the most common site.

Mr Lister said his firm made its own coffins to "very strict specifications".

Burial at sea off the Needles, isle of Wight Spoil sites are marked on charts and cannot be trawled or dredged by fishing boats

Each is lined with concrete to which a wire mesh cage is attached with wire cables, should the wood casing be damaged or break off.

He said they put identification straps on bodies and DNA tests were difficult on bodies that had been in the water for a long time.

He added: "After 18 months a body will have completely disappeared, and after three years the coffin will have broken up - it is completely biodegradable."

Mr Lister has officiated at more than 200 sea burials, but he says fewer and fewer people are choosing to be buried at sea.

'Unselfish act'

Ten years ago he would carry out more than a dozen a year, but this year there was only a few - with the last one a month ago.

Figures from the MMO show that in 2002, there were 21 sea burials in the UK. In 2012 there were just four.

"It's getting less and less common, I think because all the veterans from World War Two are no longer with us," Mr Lister said.

"But we still have several hundred people on our books who are, not waiting, but whose wish is to be buried at sea.

Mr Lister said he had not yet been informed of the plan to bring in DNA sampling, but does not believe it will impact on the decisions made by his clients.

"[Having a sea burial] is normally something people are passionate about for 20 or 30 years before they die.

"It's a deeply unselfish act. They often don't want a headstone somewhere that family need to feel responsible for tending to.

"One lady with a son in America and a daughter in Australia didn't feel it was fair on them with a grave here."

He says others chose it because they feel they "belong all over the world" not just in one country.

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