The custom of burial at sea is the most solemn of all naval ceremonies. Sailors can spend long periods at sea in close proximity to one another, developing strong, long-lasting ties. The loss of a shipmate has a deep emotional and practical impact on the crew.

Up to the end of the fifteenth century, sea travel in Western Europe was often confined to the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. A port was never far away and sea burial was unnecessary. As ships began to embark on longer voyages, however, keeping the deceased on board became impractical. 

The 1662 edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was the first edition to contain a section of prayers specifically for use at sea. British sailors developed burial services at sea with their own rituals, symbolism and meaning. To superstitious sailors, the service needed to honour the deceased, and protect the ship from the spirits of their former shipmates and bad luck. 

The elements of a funeral service at sea closely followed those observed on land. The sailor’s former messmates prepared the body. The ship’s sailmaker sewed a canvas shroud around the body, usually made from the deceased’s hammock. A weight was also sewn into the shroud at the corpse’s feet to ensure a rapid descent. The last stitch was sewn through the deceased’s nose. It is believed this was to ensure the sailor was actually dead. The shock of the stitch passing through the nose was supposedly enough to revive them from a catatonic state. However, the real reason was probably more practical - to prevent the body from slipping out of the canvas.

The national flag was laid over the deceased with the top left quarter positioned over the left shoulder. As on land, the body was carried feet first to the site of the service on the gangway. All members of the ship’s company attended the service and the sailor’s former messmates would take places on either side of the body. The body was placed on a grating and the ship’s chaplain or the captain performed the service from the quarterdeck.

The service was similar to those conducted on land. The major difference was the body being “committed to the deep”, rather than “committed to the ground”. At the words ‘commit this body to the deep’, two sailors lifted the end of the grating while holding the flag so the body slipped from under it and into the sea. 

The last burial at sea from a Royal Australian Navy vessel occurred at 5pm on 21 June 1976 for Seaman A Spencer in HMAS Vampire (II) while the ship was en route to the United States.

Where lives were lost at sea and the body, or bodies, were never recovered, it is common for memorial services to be conducted both on land and at sea. 

In a practice related to burial at sea, many former sailors request that their ashes be committed to the sea.