Monday, February 7, 2011

Burial at Sea

The refrigerated freighter Rigel had left Norfolk, Virginia, two days earlier, and now she was crossing the Atlantic bound for the Mediterranean.  It would be a ten-day transit, with the first port of call in Malaga, Spain.  The ship rode gently in a long, low swell.  The June weather was mild and the sky spotted with only an occasional altocumulus cloud.  Sunset was not far off.  It was truly a beautiful day at sea.

In addition to the usual cargo of refrigerated and frozen foodstuffs and military supplies on this voyage, the Rigel also carried an urn.  Its contents were the remains of an employee, and they were to be committed to the deep with appropriate ceremony this very day.  Captain Manuel G. Viera would preside and conduct at this burial shortly after dinner.

            I don’t recall the deceased seaman’s name, but the circumstances of his unfortunate demise were such that I would not mention his name if I knew it.  It’s amazing how different people can be.  Captain Viera was the quintessential officer and gentleman; the man he would soon lay to rest was anything but that.

Those who had known this man all told the same story.  He had entangled himself with a woman with whom he had no legitimate business beyond exchanging verbal pleasantries.  As often happens in these cases, the situation ballooned out of control.  At a time when the two apparently thought themselves safe from discovery, the woman’s husband came in unannounced.  What he found taking place in his own home enraged him.  A violent altercation between the two men ensued.  One finished the day in jail; the other in a morgue.  I don’t know what became of the woman.

At the appointed time, the off-duty officers and crew of the Rigel gathered just forward of the deck house on the port side.  This was the leeward side of the ship.  Captain Viera arrived a moment or so later.  He was accompanied by another officer who brought the urn and a book.  Everyone assumed a respectful stance in two loosely formed ranks facing each other across a small open space.  Captain Viera stood at the head of the two columns and faced the water.  He opened the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church and began conducting the service of burial from it.  He solemnly intoned the prayers for the repose of the faithful departed, led the assembly in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and then committed the ashes of the deceased to the deep.

On cue, a younger officer took the urn, brought it to the side of the ship, and proceeded to empty its contents into the sea below.  Most of this dust fell gracefully into the water as expected.  In an instant, though, a sharp gust of wind arose and caught the last of the ashes.  It blew them back, as it were, upward and over the bulwarks and into the very faces of those assembled on deck.  They say the sea never gives up its dead, but this once the dead had the last laugh.  The assembly on deck reacted with revulsion to the dead man’s ashes touching their skin and their hair.  Captain Viera remained unruffled, however.  He quickly restored order in his quiet but authoritative manner.  He then concluded the ceremony and dismissed the ship’s company.  One man remained behind with a broom to dispatch the remaining ashes.

I watched this funeral from the port bridge wing—a balcony view, so to speak.  When it was finished, it was my job to assist in determining the exact latitude and longitude of the burial spot along with the depth of the water.  This information would be relayed to the man’s family, along with a description of the burial ceremony itself.  I hoped that this official version would omit the detail of the ashes being blown back aboard ship.  The family did not need to know that; they had enough unpleasant information already.

As young as I was at the time, I knew that this burial at sea could have been prevented.  Sometimes the simplest principles yield the best results.  Obedience is a good example.  If people would obey the laws that the Lord has given them, they would stay out of trouble.  If the seaman in question had obeyed one of these laws, he would not have been killed. In disobeying the sixth commandment, he chose to do something universally acknowledged as wrong, and as a result he came to a violent and tragic end.  How sad.  The instructions were clear and concise: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).  The result that befell this man illustrates the practical wisdom of simple obedience.  In addition, there is the moral wisdom of this commandment.  Adultery is wrong; it destroys marriages, divides families, and ruins childhoods.  Surely nothing good would come from it, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).  On the contrary, “the obedient shall eat the good of the land” (D&C 64:34).

Captain Viera was one of the obedient.  He looked the part, too.  His immaculate dress and grooming conveyed a sense of both physical and spiritual cleanliness.  Respected throughout the fleet, he was acknowledged by all who knew him as a morally upright and virtuous man.  Sailing with him for several months aboard the Rigel, I came to witness this for myself.  Captain Viera was a devout Catholic.  He prayed the rosary every day at sea and attended church when possible in port.  He never used profane language, never took the Lord’s name in vain, and never made critical remarks about anyone else.  He did not drink or smoke.  He was a family man who regretted his extended absences from his family.  He married once, and it was a lifelong marriage to one woman.

Professionally, Captain Viera enjoyed an excellent reputation.  He was a highly skilled shiphandler and navigator with many, many years of seafaring experience.  He always treated his subordinates fairly and equitably, although he could be firm and businesslike when necessary.  Largely a self-educated man, he had risen from the unlicensed ranks to become an officer.  He started his career as an ordinary seaman doing the dirtiest jobs aboard ship.  He concluded his career as the permanent Master of the Rigel.  While Captain Viera may not literally have eaten “the good of the land,” he most certainly partook of the good of the sea, and he enjoyed a fine career.

“It must needs be,” explained Lehi, “that there is an opposition in all things.  If not so, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.  Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one” (2 Nephi 2:11).  The fact that Captain Viera was surrounded by shipmates whose behavioral standards were often less than stellar made him all the more remarkable  He was not a tall man, but his personal conduct, professional demeanor, and moral standards shone forth so clearly that he certainly seemed to stand a little taller than most others.  On the afternoon of the funeral aboard the Rigel, it became impossible not to compare the two principal figures, the one conducting the service and the one for whom the service was conducted.  Both teach us valuable lessons.  The better man’s life standards are fit for emulation; the other man’s lack of standards must be avoided.


  1. That was a great story! Thanks for sharing it. Patty thanks for referring us to it.

  2. Thanks, Curtis family. I'm glad you enjoyed it and hope you come back to read more.