The sacred ministry of scattering ashes at sea

Most of Senior Chaplain Paul Stuart’s work in a Royal Australian Navy consists of ministering to real and present needs of those sailors who are under his charge.

But there’s one act of service that “Padre” Paul extends to any man or woman who has served in any part of the Australian Navy at any time: the gift of committing their ashes to sea when they pass on from this life.

“Most ships sail with five to six boxes of ashes to be scattered,” he told Eternity, explaining they are the ashes of deceased Navy personnel who have requested their ashes be scattered at sea.

In preparation for the scattering service, Stuart prepares a memorial service with a memorial booklet that he will later send to the family, along with a chart showing where the ashes were scattered.

A scattering service consists of the usual Bible readings, prayers and hymns, but also includes a Reading of the Service Records of the deceased, the last post, a minute’s silence and a ‘Sailor’s Ode’ that reads:

They have no grave

but the cruel sea.

No flowers lay at their head.

A rusting hulk is their tombstone.

Afast on the ocean bed.

Front page of the memorial booklet created for the scattering service of Earnest Rudland and Jack Gallagher, who survived their ship’s bombing in WWI.

Last deployment, Stuart had “the great honour” of committing to the Indian Ocean the ashes of two deceased veterans who had survived the bombing of their ship, the HMAS Canberra I, at the Battle of Savo Island in 1942 during World War II.

In a moving ceremony held last March, Navy, Army and Air Force personnel gathered on HMAS Canberra III’s quarterdeck to pay their respects to the two sailors and the other deceased Navy personal who were being committed.

The two sailors were Ernie Rudland and his childhood friend Jack Gallagher. Having survived the bombing of Canberra I, they joined other survivors to form the crew of the new sister ship HMAS Shropshire – a gift to Australia from Britain. The crew of the Shropshire went on to achieve five battle honours.

Friends Rudland and Gallagher were also aboard in the Philippines when Shropshire’s captain announced the news of the war’s end and reportedly ordered: “All hands to dance and skylark.”

Gallagher is survived by his widow Rose (yes, this is a real life Jack and Rose story involving a ship, although this one has a much happier ending than the famous Titanic tale). She told the Navy Daily that her husband loved the Navy and always regretted leaving the service after the war.

“Jack would have been so proud to be part of the ceremony,” she said, from her home in Perth.

“I’m disappointed I couldn’t be there, and I got emotional when I handed him over, but I know I have done the right thing. Jack’s on his last journey now… he can rest in peace.”