Dead in the Water

To Be a Reef

A new reef appeared off Fort Lauderdale's coast last month. Not a coral reef but an eternal reef. It was constructed by an Atlanta firm that specializes in memorializing the cremated remains of loved ones in cement casts that fit together in underwater "reef balls."

After a dedication ceremony February 23, aquatic creatures will start gluing themselves to the artificial reef — a pleasing thought for individuals with an attachment to the sea, according to funeral industry innovators. The reef-ball project, creating man-made cement foundations for environmentally threatened coral reefs, is nothing new; there are almost a half-million in the world's oceans. But filling them with "cremains"? For Tailpipe, that's new.

True, a Delray Beach company called SeaRest that offered the technology went under (not under the ocean but out of business) last year, and the practice has been slow to catch on around here despite South Florida's beckoning beaches. "Too expensive," Fort Lauderdale funeral director Barbara Falowski says. At around $3,000, it's cheaper than the traditional casket-in-the-ground route but more costly than the standard cremation alternative. And some people don't derive the same satisfaction knowing that Gramps is covered with sea cucumbers as they do having an urn on a mantelpiece, Falowski adds.

But the Decatur, Georgia-based Eternal Reefs is marketing its new submarine resting places as both environmentally friendly and a more personalized alternative to the old "scattering at sea" mode.

The idea actually came from the father-in-law of Eternal Reefs cofounder Don Brawley. "I can think of nothing better than having all that action going on around me all the time after I'm gone," Carleton Glen Palmer told his son-in-law. "Just make sure that the location has lots of red snapper and grouper." Not long afterward, Palmer's ashes were laid to rest in a 400-pound concrete mound on the sea floor off Sarasota.

So far, other burial innovations have had a greater impact in the Broward death market, say local funeral directors. Considerably more popular are biodegradable urns that return ashes to the sea naturally, says Jonathan Weis of Forest Lawn North in Pompano Beach. An array of products, including furniture, are also finding favor. Backyard memorials are available, Weis says, with ashes placed in chambers tucked inside birdbaths, sundials, and wind chimes. Another new development for keeping the dearly departed at arm's length is a memorial end table — with a cube-shaped urn in the drawer.

There's the pricey launch-your-remains-into-space option (hallucinogen explorer Timothy Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) and the cannon-shot-with-fireworks dispersal (gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson). There are also some eerily unique approaches that will probably never catch on. "I've heard of some really strange stuff, like a gentleman who took his wife's cremains and pill-pressed 'em," Weis says. "He took a pill everyday." Could that be maybe a little unhealthy? "No, it's just a carbon. Probably went out just as fast as it went in."

Tailpipe himself, when he falls into a morbid frame of mind, thinks comfortingly of being recycled at a foundry and coming back, renewed and upgraded, on the underside of a solar-powered racer, where he'll spit out nothing but an occasional trace of carbon dioxide.

Klan Klowns

First Commandment for schoolchildren working on homework research assignments: Be suspicious of anything you read on the Internet.

A few weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in the wake of the death of King's widow, Coretta, Tailpipe stumbled upon a seemingly innocuous website called martinlutherking.org. With a homepage featuring photos of King, with his characteristic horizon-searching gaze, and topics relating to the civil rights icon's biography and historical impact, the site seemed to be a fitting source of information for high school report writers.

Well, think again, emissions breath. The site is the brainchild of Don Black, a Palm Beach-based former Ku Klux Klan leader and general hatemonger about town, as well as the owner and administrator of the "White Nationalist" website stormfront.org, "the oldest and largest hate site on the Net," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Despite the official-sounding title, martinlutherking.org paints a picture of King as an unprincipled con man who plagiarized his doctoral thesis and many of his sermons and spent more time engaging in illicit sexual liaisons than in ministering to his flock. Among the books recommended for further reading: My Awakening, by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

A major source of information for debunking the fallen civil rights leader is former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's clandestine campaign to sully King's reputation, which culminated in an anonymous note advising King to commit suicide. The site, of course, doesn't discuss the FBI's motives.

It's all a pathetic attempt to rewrite the history of the civil rights struggle, you say. It couldn't work, could it?

Well, there's no indication on the site of how many people have visited it, but an associated messageboard lists about 200,000 hits. There have even been some media hits. The Lebanon Reporter, an Indiana newspaper, recently apologized after running a letter to the editor that was actually a reprint of a speech posted on the website.

Recently, the school kids closest to Don Black's home were wised up. After a tip by a reporter last year, the Palm Beach County School System IT department now blocks access to the website; school officials report that no teachers have noticed any hate-tinged rhetoric creeping into student reports. Achtung, Stormfront. You can't hide. The 'Pipe will track you down.

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