Last Stop: The Great Burial Reef

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Andrew L. Whitaker

Jason Rew, president and CEO of Great Burial Reef, holds a solid maple urn containing cremated remains, which he will place in a manmade reef underwater.

Jason Rew went from being a Wall Street trader in subprime mortgages to helping his clients sleep with the fishes.

As president and CEO of Great Burial Reef, Rew, 30, announced plans earlier this month to offer customers the chance to bury their cremated remains in a manmade ocean reef off the coast of Sarasota, Fla. The burial grounds will be 35 ft. under water in the Gulf of Mexico, about 2 mi. west of Lido Key. When the site is finished, it will be a self-sustaining marine sanctuary, abundant with coral, fish and other sea life. Scuba divers and tourists are welcome. "If you want to come out and dive the site, you'll know the exact GPS location," Rew says. (His company will give families the exact coordinates of their loved ones' tomb.) "You can even dive the memorial before you're in it."

The idea for Great Burial Reef bubbled up in conversations between Rew and his late father, Timothy, who conceived of the punny company name, while the two were sailing the Florida Keys. The Rews drew up their first business plan in 2000, but put the project on hold while Jason went to college in Orlando, then took a job as a broker at Goldman Sachs in New York City. When his father was killed in a car crash in May 2006 at age 49, it was the "catalyst for starting the business," says Rew. Last February, just before the subprime mortgage industry foundered, he left Wall Street and returned to Florida. In four months and with $500,000 in start-up costs, Rew had his business up and running. Now death is his way of life.

The living memorial reef is intended to be an eco-friendly, land-conserving alternative to traditional cemeteries, says Rew, who was born in Florida and grew up around the water: "Since the reefs around the world have been dying rapidly, our reef's immediate impact to the local ecology is that it becomes a great place to foster fish as well as a number of diverse species. As each concrete section of the reef is laid down, it will be almost immediately covered with sea life, so the reef will continually evolve over time — until it reaches capacity. Because it will be installed in federally protected waters, once the reef is in place, it can never be removed.

Not that it would be an easy task. Each segment of the reef weighs 2,500 pounds, providing individual spaces for two urns — couples can be buried at separate times — and the entire reef will hold 320 remains. It costs $7,500 to place a single urn, $9,800 for a couple. The price includes a hand-crafted wooden urn in the shape of a Navajo pot, the boat ride to the burial site where mourners can watch the remains being placed in the reef and sealed with a bronze memorial plaque, and an underwater photograph of the burial. (The price does not include cremation, which the company does not do.)

Rew says the first urn placed in the reef will be his father's. So far, Rew has sold a dozen other plots. His customers "have one thing in common," says Rew. "They all love the water."

The company is planning to build several reefs in Florida, with one planned off St. Petersburg and another off Naples, including separate reefs for pet burials. The original reef near Sarasota, called Silvertooth Memorial Reef, measures 200 ft. by 400 ft. and takes the shape of a starburst with eight curving branches, like the outstretched tentacles of an octopus. Each branch of the reef bears a name appropriate for repose: Love, Peace, Harmony, Serenity, Tranquility, Infinity, Eternity and Spirit. There's room for eight family plots that will each hold the remains of up to 10 people. "The family plot on the Love is the one I am keeping for my family," says Rew, adding that his father, whom he plans to bury in March, would be proud. "I wish he were here to see, but he'll have a great view from where he is."