An Israeli's Decade-long Struggle to Be Buried at Sea

How one man's quixotic battle to determine his last rites became his reason d'etre

Shlomo Avni would tell anyone willing to listen why he didn't want to be interred. He said that death was part of the cycle of life and that he was born to live, mature and die, serving as fodder for all creatures, just as he had fed on them. From his perspective, it was wrong to consider humans superior to other living beings. The way he saw it, depositing a body in the ground, covering it with concrete and putting a marble slab on top was akin to creating a gigantic sardine can for corpses. Instead of letting the earth fulfill its true destiny – giving life – it would become a sanctuary for the consecration of death.

When Avni told his children Eyal and Noga that as far as he was concerned their German shepherd could eat his flesh after his death, they thought it was another one of their father’s distasteful jokes, part of his black humor. Over time, as he kept repeating this, they began to realize that he was serious. Very serious.

Shlomo Avni

“My father started constructing firm views of the world after he realized that the way reality was depicted was untrue,” says Eyal. “For example, he was on the front line during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. While the radio was telling of victories and successes, he saw his comrades falling one by one. That’s where the shedding of old narratives started budding, with the formation of a worldview based on new values. That’s where he started embracing strong beliefs which guided him through his struggle for his right not to be buried.”

Avni approached the administrator general at the Justice Ministry in 2009, submitting a will containing one wish: not to be buried. It requested that his children be allowed to dispose of his body in nature. The state refused. The administrator general’s office, responsible for executing wills and bequests, determined that his wishes were illegal. Under Israeli law, one must be buried; furthermore, a Jew must be buried as a Jew.

Avni appealed to the High Court of Justice, claiming he had sole ownership over his body and no one else had any rights over it, which allowed him to dispose of it as he saw fit.

The High Court ruled that the public good overrides his personal good and whims and that throwing his body in an open space could be a public hazard, even if it were to take place in the middle of the desert. The judges also noted Hebrew law, which stipulates burial for Jews, and concluded that any alternative would constitute disrespect for human dignity.

Avni would not let up. Even after Supreme Court justices had determined that his wish was disrespectful to human dignity, he insisted that since he was the human being in question, this was his way of maintaining his dignity. He proposed a creative alternative: throwing his body into the sea. In the depths, his body would not be a hazard to the public or the environment. It would be like delivering pizza to some hungry fish.

Shlomo Avni

'You can stand with me or you can leave'

Avni’s petition made its rounds through the legal system for six years. The state argued that choosing the sea was just a clever twist which was not substantially different from the original idea that had been struck down. It therefore asked that the petition be dismissed out of hand. Avni, who insisted on representing himself, stuck to his argument that there is no law authorizing the state to compel a person to be buried or determining the nature of his interment.

“At some point my father’s worldview took over his life to such an extent that all he did was to try and disseminate it. He became obsessive about it,” recounts Eyal. “In addition to his ideas about the cycle of life and the resources wasted on burial, he adopted a further notion, which I believe became his main motivation. He thought that during his entire life he had been told how to live and what to do, but that no one should dictate how he must be buried. This became a quixotic battle against the system."

“We all knew we could find sneaky solutions, such as setting out by boat and somehow letting the body fall into the water," says Eyal, "but he wouldn’t have it. He wanted the system’s imprimatur, its concession. He wanted the state to say: ‘Shlomo Avni, you may be buried any way you wish.’ It became the focus of his life, his only purpose, dwarfing anything else. His family became secondary. His happiness became irrelevant. All that mattered was winning this battle.”

His struggle hurt those around him. “The family paid a heavy price,” says Eyal. “The constant battles and the pursuit of justice was too big for us. He declared quite openly that we could stand with him as long as we understood that this was the supreme issue in his life. Otherwise we could leave him alone.”

Eyal recalls that during those years, and even earlier, the feeling at home was that he was a fighter for justice and principles first and a father only after that. “It’s frustrating to feel that your father doesn’t love you sufficiently, and he knew what we were feeling. It didn’t interest him,” he says.

In 2014 the High Court reversed the earlier decisions and ruled that Avni had the right to request that his corpse be thrown into the sea. The case returned to the District Court for further deliberations. However, when Avni saw the state’s arguments, he realized that it considered throwing his body off a boat an act of discarding waste – polluting the water. He was thus obliged to obtain a permit from the committee that regulates the discharge of treated sewage or oil refinery waste products into the sea.

Avni appeared before the committee. Nature and industry experts convened in order to discuss whether Mr. Shlomo Avni of Givatayim is a waste product. Following lengthy deliberations, the committee ruled that there was no reason to treat his body as waste. The District Court accepted his request, ruling that after his death his body would be handed over to his son Eyal, who could then dispose of it at sea.

Avni then started planning all the necessary logistics, obtaining the required permits and finding a suitable boat. He signed a contract with the boat's owners and arranged for an iron cage that would facilitate the sinking of the body while allowing access to fish. He even chose a menu to be served to his friends aboard the boat that would carry him to his resting place.

On March 1, 2016, the 86-year-old Avni died. Fifty friends had been invited in advance to travel on the boat, but the owners with whom Avni had made the arrangements had lost the permit allowing them to sail that far out. Eyal, who was worried that someone would take notice due to the controversial nature of the event, quickly arranged for another boat to undertake the sailing. When he found a boat and the winds were right, ten close friends boarded and it set out.

“From the moment everything was ready and everyone arrived, we loaded the cage on the boat and an amazing eight-hour trip outside of Israel’s territorial waters began,” says Eyal. “That’s a long time at sea. Only a niece and I represented the family. My sister didn’t join us since she had reservations about my father’s choice and conduct. We spread out some food and brought out some beer, talking and eating in a circle. My father was in the middle and we sat around with beers in our hands. I knew then that my father had given us a great gift, and even if he may have wanted some cameras and media present, he was there with us, looking on happily.”

They reached the location, 22 nautical miles from the coast. The sound of the waves splashing against the boat filled the air after the sudden silence left behind by the body slipping into the depths. After that, everyone found their own corner as they sailed back in silence.

Yochai Meital reported on Avni's quest for "Israel Story," a podcast broadcast on Army Radio.