A local boat captain pitching his burial-at-sea business created an opportunity for a good story, and Christopher Burrell of the Quincy Patriot Ledger wasn’t about to let the intriguing topic pass.
Instead of taking the straight pitch, however, Burrell did some additional reporting and turned the subject into a recent weekend centerpiece for the Boston-area paper.
The result was an interesting read, illustrating a spike in such burials over the last decade.
Motivated by a love of the sea, concern for the environment or a diminishing desire for religious funerals, people are choosing burial at sea more often, according to the latest data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the disposal of human remains in America’s oceans.
Last year, the agency’s regional office for the six New England states counted 131 sea burials, a six-fold increase over the 19 processed in 2006. Only five of last year’s sea burials were intact human remains.
After getting the original pitch, Burrell said he reached out to other sources to give the piece some necessary balance.
It begs an interesting question: Should reporters keep their minds open when it comes to pitches from local businesses?
Story ideas are story ideas, regardless of their origin.
If you come across such a pitch, it’s wise to:
• Dig for area stats: Could this pitch help kick off a regional trend story? For example, if a local apple farmer pitches a pick-your-own event, why not use the opening to write a larger piece about whether apple production is up or down this year? Call a state agency to get numbers or projections.
With Burrell’s story, he looked for trends in sea burials.
“Give it context. Who regulates or tracks this activity? The EPA, which had a nice set of data over a period of years that showed this was growing,” he said by email. “Other than the obvious players, who else might care about this? Environmental groups, perhaps. I tried Ocean Conservancy first, and they had no opinion on it. So I tried Greenpeace and got a pretty good quote out of them.”
• Use the opportunity to gather local flavor: Essentially, you’ve got a number of sources gathered in one place for you. If the pitch was a release party for a local band’s CD, you’ve got a number of music fans rounded up. You can easily accumulate quotes for a story about whether the area’s music scene is improving.
In the case of the burial at sea, Burrell said this offered a golden opportunity.
“The whole story could have been just the event: body on a boat, family around and a funeral at sea. But that would been just giving this guy a free ad,” Burrell said. “So the scene opened with that strong visual — body laid out on the fantail of a boat. But I quickly explained to readers the larger issue. Why might this be happening more? What are the regulations. Then I turned back to the narrative, but not sensationalizing it.
“Huge bonus in terms of an essential voice was the 80-year-old woman who came along on the sea burial voyage as an observer and potential client.”
• Get the other side: If a local vape shop is promoting a grand opening, ask other shop owners how many businesses the market can hold. Or use the opportunity to open a discussion on the dangers of vaping.
• Disclose anything necessary: If you were offered the chance to, say, attend a banquet, make sure that finds its way into the story. “As the scene gets better, I notice I’m starting to make live music a bigger part of my social calendar,” music fan Joe Smith said during a recent CD release media party.
In the case of Burrell’s piece, he offered interesting insight into the cost of such burials, as well as the laws that pertain to them.
Federal regulations require at least 600 feet of sea depth for bodies interred in the ocean, meaning a longer voyage in New England waters to reach deeper waters.
The median cost of a traditional burial in the U.S. was about $8,000 in 2012. Simple cremation of a body can cost from $700 to $1,200. Those prices do not include the cost of a cemetery plot for a casket or urn.
“The pitch alone was a businessman selling something — sea burials, in this case. But the hook was good, and we waited some weeks for the right opportunity: a full body burial,” Burrell said. “That said, we would have gone out for just a scattering of ashes.
“The opportunity to get out on the water for such an unusual ceremony — full-body burial — definitely made it a stronger piece.”