Brad White '81: From Corporate Development to Sea Burials
In his sophomore year at IC, Brad White ’81 took a course that would one day lead to a sea change in his career.
Exposing students to end-of-life issues, the course—Death and Dying—featured a tour of an Ithaca funeral home. When the professor of the class, Jules Burgevin, asked his students to touch a casketed corpse to “show that death was real,” White didn’t flinch. After all, he and his brothers had spent years visiting his uncle’s funeral home, and as early as the fifth grade, he thought he might become an undertaker as well. Throughout high school, he had worked for another funeral home outside Boston, transporting the deceased in a hearse, working calling hours, and setting up the flower stands for the services. But he did learn something else from his professor: “Jules was the first inspiration for me to think about how to market death,” White says.
White’s plan to work as an undertaker took a backseat to an opportunity in the retail industry after he graduated from college. Twenty-seven years later, having left the Sharper Image, White was leading fishing charters for giant bluefin tuna off the Massachusetts coast when one of his customers asked him to scatter his uncle’s cremated remains off his boat. As the number of requests multiplied, New England Burials at Sea took off as a business.
“I liked the business model [because it] really didn’t exist,” White recalls. “There was no inventory, the ocean was your office, and you could dazzle customers with white-glove service.”
So far, that approach has worked. In 2014, his company, based in Marshfield Hills, Massachusetts, conducted more than 300 funerals, and White expects that number to grow to about 1,000 within three years. This past spring, he began serving client families along the California coast in addition to offering at-sea burials in ports from Maine to Miami.
Though he has five captains on staff, White still conducts some of the sea burials himself. The remains—whether cremated or intact—are always interred at least three miles offshore (the legal limit), after which white rose petals are strewn on the water, an eight-star yacht flag is raised, and an authentic cannon is fired in salute.
Because orchestrating a burial at sea that will satisfy all family members can be stressful, White tries to add a touch of humor to help his client families get through their time of grief.
“I sometimes sign my letters, ‘Eventually yours,’ or ‘I’ll be the last to let you down,’” he says. “So there is some whimsy and comedy with one’s last wish. People like that levity.”
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