Despite her problems, the Spiegel Grove ended up a success story, unlike the notorious Osborne Tire Reef off Florida's Broward County. This project was initially thought to be a good idea in the early '70s, a win-win environmental stroke that would liberate the nation's landfills of up to two million discarded tires to create a thriving marine habitat.
But it turned out that vulcanized rubber is actually a poor substrate for coral growth, and the bundled tires, instead of helping to augment two adjacent natural reefs, ended up smothering and bashing into their fragile organisms. When the bundles broke apart, the tires washed up on the beaches. The hopeful Osborne Tire Reef initiative has now given way to its expensive remedy, the Osborne Reef Waste Tire Removal Project.
Artificial reefs aren't just the final resting places of tires and ships. Several companies have arisen to serve people who have the desire to become artificial reefs themselves, but reef burials are still a microscopic niche market of the funeral industry. Jim Hutslar, one of three partners behind Neptune Memorial Reef, invited me to accompany him one spring morning on a maintenance run to the underwater cemetery he's constructed in 40 feet of water four and a half miles off Miami Beach. As Hutslar used his dive knife to scrape algae off memorial plaques, I swam down to inspect the first phase of what will eventually be a 16-acre underwater memorial garden.
The water was murky, which only added to the mood of unworldly discovery this bizarre apparition is clearly meant to impart. What I saw was a grouping of broken columns, with colonnades branching off on either side, and two massive bronze lions guarding a sagging iron gate.
Neptune Reef was originally conceived as an art project, a hidden-away artifact from our romantic cultural memory that would molder away by picturesque degrees at the bottom of the ocean. Burials became a way of financing the project, and so far there have been about 200 "placements."
People laid to rest in Neptune Reef are cremated, their ashes mixed with cement and either encased in the columns or molded into sea-star, brain-coral, or other shapes. I swam among sergeant majors, grunts, parrotfish, and French angelfish as I paid my respects to the submerged. The people laid to rest here must have been familiar enough with the processes of the ocean to know that these placements would soon be engulfed by invertebrate life, that damselfish would one day be laying eggs and cultivating patches of algae on their bones, so to speak.
I hovered in front of one of the big lions. Poised on its towering pedestal, it was more than 15 feet tall, and my view of it was periodically obscured by sidling schools of fish. The lion had been there only six years but already seemed like something secreted away for many human ages, red algae growing between its claws, colonizing corals spreading through its mane. It should have been cheesy, but somehow it was not. Instead, it seemed a testament to the marvelous power of the ocean to claim almost every sort of material—including the human body—and make it flower with life.