From the beginnings of our exploration of Earth’s oceans, sailors have perished on board ship. Since human culture demands ritual care for the diseased, it was necessary to find some way to dispose of the dead body, while maintaining both cleanliness and moral for these left behind. The answer was called burial at sea.
Burial at sea is, obviously, a misnomer. One cannot “bury” a corpse on the ocean floor. Instead, the body was simply placed into the ocean, with appropriate ceremony. The word “buried” was simply a term used to relate the necessary event with the much more traditional methods used to homer the dead.
For the purpose of this article, the primary sources are records kept by the English Royal Navy, and accounts of sailors testifying in court about the care given to deceased sailors by merchant captains.
The disposal of a dead body into water was very much at odds with the traditions of Christianity. For hundreds of years, it had been believed that, upon the arrival of the end of the world, Christians would arise from their graves, whole and incorrupt, to face judgement before God. This became a problem if there was no “body.” For this reason, Christianity taught that cremation, dismemberment, and burial in unhallowed ground must be avoided at all costs. Such activities would literally prevent the dead from arising and reaching heaven.
For this reason, the Catholic nations, most notably France and Spain, did not practice burial at sea. Instead, whenever possible, navy ships of these nations temporarily buried deceased crew members in the ballast of the ship. The ballast, usually a massive amount of sand or rock, was located in the bottommost part of the ship. Its purpose was to counterbalance the huge weight of the tall masts, and allow the ship to remain upright.
Surely it was an unhealthy practice, possibly mitigated by the fact that the area was usually quite wet with sea water, which may have partially preserved the corpses. When the ship returned to port, bodies were shipped home for permanent burial.
England, which had recently broken from the Catholic Church (1534), was able to create new traditions more useful to a nation determined to make itself a major power by sea. To this end, the Anglican Church, the official church of England, began developing a service to bury the dead at sea, which was considered “just as good” as a land burial, at least for purposes of getting to heaven.
The same Office may be used; but instead of the Sentence of Committal, the Minister shall say,
UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.
This image, that the dead bodies of those buried at sea were somehow “incorruptible” and would arise whole upon judgment day must have been a very great comfort to those who lost loved ones at sea, as well as to those who faced perils on the water. People of the Golden Age of Piracy too their religion very seriously indeed.
The ritual for burial of the dead called for the ship to come to a complete stop. All on board cleaned themselves and dressed in their best. The body was prepared by cleaning and dressing it, and by sewing it into a sturdy length of canvas, which acted as a coffin. Great care was taken to create a package that would not easily submit to the appetites of sea creatures. The body was weighted, usually with two cannon balls which were incorporate into the package at the corpse’s feet. A minister, if available, the ship’s captain if not, read the ceremony. At the end, the body would be slid quietly into the water.
Of course, such ceremonies were not always possible. Storms might kill men and at the same time take their bodies. Men died in battle, and were sometimes simply thrown overboard in a effort to keep the ship’s deck clear for action. This is the image that we think of in the death of pirates.
What we may not remember, however, is that pirates were people, people with friendships and ties to loved ones on land. Therefore, pirates almost certainly followed the traditions of the navy in this: on the nearest peaceful day after a storm, or after battle, a ceremony would be held for those lost. In the absence of a body, an empty sailcloth container was used, still weighted with cannon balls.
Merchant ships, however, were often an exception to this. A merchant captain did not want to stop this ship, since doing so cost time and therefore money. Merchant captains also did not have the handy instructions for such ceremonies which were given to navy personnel.
So, sometimes, merchant sailors who died at sea were simply dumped overboard. This led to bad feeling among the sailors, who occasionally mention such incidents in court cases brought against merchant captains. Indeed, the promise of a "proper burial" was a recruiting incentive for pirates.
Lacking the support of authority figures, sailors invented their own way of honoring the dead. After disposal of the body (by whatever means) a brief get together was held by the main mast, in which the deceased sailor’s co-workers auctioned off his possessions among themselves.
This may seem very hard-hearted, but it had a definite purpose. The private belongings of a common sailor were worth practically nothing. If the deceased had family, it was not cost effective to send these things home. And if the sailor had been sending money home to a wife, children or aged parents, the loss of that income would be cruel blow.
Therefore, the auction was held. Sailors honored their comrade by bidding much more than the value of the few simple items (sometimes only a knife, a spare shirt, and few trinkets) their friend had left behind. The sailors’ goal was to provide for the family. By claiming that the money sent home was the result of an “auction” they save the family the shame of accepting charity, while gaining keepsakes for themselves.
More well-off sailors, including pirates, were famous for wearing a single gold earring. The earring was supposed to be taken and used for burial services, should its owner die far from home and alone.
And why would this be honored? Why not steal the earring and let the body decay? Because any other sailor knew that he himself might be in the same circumstance someday. It was, as we say today “paying it forward.”