Rest in peace, beneath the sea

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The Neptune Society, provider of cremation services and funerals at sea, is opening an undersea cemetery with a Lost City of Atlantis motif that is expected to draw funerals, fish and divers to Miami’s waters.

The Neptune Society, provider of cremation services and funerals at sea, is opening an undersea cemetery with a Lost City of Atlantis motif that is expected to draw funerals, fish and divers to Miami’s waters.

Located 3.25 miles off Key Biscayne, Neptune Memorial Reef will cover 16 acres and encompass 5,000 concrete sculptures — columns, benches, figurines, artifacts, gates, lintels — all laid out in concentric circles and along spokes meeting in a central plaza. The “ruins” are honeycombed with nooks and crannies, niches and caves for fish and other marine life to hide in, and with voids where divers will imbed cement blocks harboring ashes of the deceased.

Each memorial block will have a bronze plaque identifying the remains, and the cemetery will have space for more than 165,000 of these. Cost of a memorial “plot” will average about $2,000, but a space in some of the more elaborate sculptures will cost as much as $10,000, says Kim Brandell, the Miami sculptor who designed the reef.

“Your money is actually going to build this sanctuary for fish,” says Brandell, 56. “That’s why we call this ‘life after life.’ ”

The north entrance, about 1/20 of the reef, is finished, he says. That includes 600 tons of concrete sculptures and a brass gate flanked by brass lions. The reef’s ultimate cost will be about $20 million, the sculptor says, and sales of plots will finance its expansion. The memorial reef is in 40 to 50 feet of water inside the Key Biscayne Special Management Zone, an area set aside for building artificial reefs to foster the growth of fish populations and other marine life.

Brandell says the memorial reef was designed first and foremost for marine life because it was on that basis that federal and state agencies issued environmental permits for it. He says researchers will be invited to undertake long-term studies of the reef to see how and what kinds of configurations help propagate fish populations.

The Neptune Society and The Atlantis Reef Project, a business headed by entrepreneur Gary Levine, spent $100,000 studying how to engineer the sculptures so they can withstand 100-year storms. Some of the bases of the sculptures weigh 30 tons, and those bases are secured with 8-inch-diameter pipes sunk seven feet into the sand.

“That keeps the statues from sliding and tipping over,” Brandell says.

Brandell, a South Florida native who hankered to be a marine biologist as a child, says the reef is designed more for diving than for fishing, but anglers should benefit from it in the future as the reef spawns more fish in Miami’s inshore waters. “The fish that grow up there will swim off, and you can catch them somewhere else,” he says.

The society plans to furnish glass-bottom boats for on-site funerals, Brandell says. Mourners can watch the stones set in place from the boat through the glass bottom or on an on-board wide-screen television, or they can view it from 50 feet below the water — if they are divers.

The society has set out six mooring buoys for funeral and diving boats. “Divers already are going to the site, and they’re spreading the news,” Brandell says. “It’s not like anything anyone has seen before.”

Cremation is gaining wide acceptance, says Lois Whitman, publicist for The Neptune Society. She says Americans are so mobile that it doesn’t make much sense anymore to keep a traditional family burial plot. “A lot of people today are opting for cremation,” she says. And the underwater cemetery? “They are already lining up to reserve a place.”

She says reservations for plots opened Nov. 15. For more information on the Neptune Society and the Neptune Memorial Reef, call (888) 663-6633 or visit www.neptunesociety.com or www.nmreef.com .