By Michael E. Miller
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By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
A white '80s Dodge Ram work van idles near the public boat ramp at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove. The ride has no windows, giving it a Silence of the Lambs vibe. Strapped to the roof is a crude homemade sign that owner Eugene "Jobie" Steppe stenciled with a striking advertisement: "FULL BODY BURIAL AT SEA... $500."
If you live in Miami and are well connected on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, chances are you've seen a photo of Steppe's ride, which went viral last month under the hashtag #thatssomiami. After all, where else in the United States would you get such a bargain to send your dead loved one off Dexter-style? Hundreds of commenters wondered the same thing as Miami attorney Luis Gazitua, who tweeted, "I can only imagine how many health codes, Florida statutes, and maritime laws this guy is violating."
None at all, says Steppe, who insists business has been booming since he put the sign on his van in early April and began cruising the streets of Miami.
"I've spoken to at least 500 people who are interested in signing a contract with me," boasts the 70-year-old seafarer with sandy-blond/gray hair and a gruff voice. "I'm getting calls from nursing homes and retirement facilities too."
Truth is, state and federal law allows next of kin to bury their relatives at sea, albeit with a slew of conditions to ensure bodies don't wash ashore. From New England to California, a tiny niche of businesses have emerged specializing in helping mourners send their dearly departed into the great abyss.
But the question of whether Steppe, with his sketchy van, history of clashes with police and city officials, and bargain-basement prices, is following all of those regulations — or actually tossing bodies into the sea — is murkier than the cold depths of the Florida Straits.
"Mr. Steppe does not appear to be operating a lawful business," Capt. Brad White, who owns a New England-based burial-at-sea firm, alleges in an email interview. "We have asked the Florida Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services and the Environmental Protection Agency to review the operator for proper procedure so that general consumers are not misled, disappointed, and sold a bill of goods."
Water burials date back to Odysseus' days sailing the high seas. Sailors once said farewell to fallen brothers by wrapping their bodies in sailcloth and sending them over the side. Plenty of notables have followed suit, from New World conqueror Sir Francis Drake to modern aficionados such as Hollywood actor John Carradine and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Newsworthiest of all is Osama bin Laden. After SEAL Team 6 took out the al-Qaeda leader May 1, 2011, his corpse was moved to the USS Carl Vinson, sealed in a weighted bag, and dropped into the North Arabian Sea.
Average joes who want to spend eternity with Poseidon must follow Florida and federal laws. Although relatives who wish to scatter ashes in the Atlantic can pretty much do as they please, anyone who wants to chuck a whole body into the ocean has to start with a death certificate and a burial transport permit from the Florida Department of Vital Statistics. Then, the family must obtain approval from the local medical examiner's office to remove the body for a service without a licensed funeral director.
Once that's done, a copy of the death certificate and the burial transport permit must be taken to the local Coast Guard office, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demands the deceased be laid to rest at least three nautical miles from land and at a depth of at least 600 feet. Last, relatives have to report the longitude and latitude of the burial to the EPA.
Capt. Dawn Mergelsberg, who runs the Miami Beach-based New Choice Burials, a charter company that offers scattering of ashes at sea, stopped performing full-body burials more than 20 years ago because of the regulations. "We no longer do it," she says. "There are a lot of requirements to do it right."
Nevertheless, some companies have found a market, such as Captain White's New England Burials at Sea. White began selling full-body water burials, starting at $9,750, in 2009. Like ancient mariners, the bodies are wrapped in sailcloth and weighted with cannonballs.
Interest has been rising, White says. In 2011 he performed only two full-body burials, but this year he's expecting up to 25. "Over 60 percent of the U.S. population borders the ocean, and many people have an affinity for the sea," White recently told trade journal American Funeral Director. "So a full-body sea burial appeals to them."
That's exactly what Eugene Steppe says he sees in Miami, where no local companies offer full-body sea burials. Born in 1942, Steppe has lived in Coconut Grove since 1965. The small, wiry lobster fisherman by trade calls himself a "redneck from Fort Pierce."
He's had run-ins with the law in his decades living in Dade. Back in 1973, he was arrested for felony marijuana possession, but a judge withheld adjudication. In 1994, he was booked for grand theft, resisting arrest without violence, and threatening a public servant, though all of those charges were dropped and records of the arrest have been destroyed. On August 11, 2006, he was arrested on felony criminal mischief charges when a condo owner on Fisher Island alleged Steppe had purposely flooded his property after not getting paid for a kitchen remodeling job. (Prosecutors dropped the case two years later. Reached on his cell phone, the condo owner, Robert Vole, declined to talk about the case but called Steppe "creative" and wished him well.)
Steppe has also picked public fights with the City of Miami. Inspectors have repeatedly whacked him for code violations at his Gifford Lane home, which he's adorned with colorful mosaics made from cracked, glazed tiles in driftwood frames. After he failed to pay fines or remove the mosaics, things got so heated at a code enforcement board hearing in September 2008 that cops escorted an enraged Steppe out of the building. In protest, he parked his truck with a sign reading "Miami City Hall Nazi Party" on Pan American Drive.
Given that colorful history, it's perhaps no surprise that Steppe told a New Times writer after that incident: "Part of my brains were blown out [in Vietnam]. I don't remember it, but that's what they tell me."
Steppe's latest eye-opening venture began about two months ago, when a family friend's mother passed away but she didn't have enough money for a funeral. Steppe began researching the law when he had a realization: Why not bury her at sea?
So he and his friend (whom he declined to name) picked up her mom's remains, placed the cadaver in a body bag, put it on his boat, and dropped her in the Atlantic more than three miles offshore. "I just weighed it down with barbells and tipped it over," Steppe says. "That's all there is to it."
He realized he could provide a public service to folks who didn't have thousands of dollars to bury their loved ones. So he made the sign and strapped it to the top of his van. Since then, he's been fielding at least two dozen calls a day inquiring about his services, he says.
Manny Garcia, a 68-year-old Cuban who saw Steppe's van in the parking lot of the Home Depot in the Grove, says he's partnering with Steppe to bring him Spanish-speaking customers. "This is something the community needs," Garcia says. "I don't have a problem with it."
Steppe claims he's buried two more bodies at sea, but he refused to put New Times in touch with the customers. He also admits he's run into some trouble. When he went to the morgue at Jackson Memorial Hospital to pick up the third body, officials didn't want to release it and eventually called the cops. He was not arrested, though, and Larry Cameron, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department, says there's no record of any incident involving Steppe.
"I made the mistake of not having the next of kin with me," Steppe explains. "She had to be present to pick up the body."
But White, at least, says Steppe isn't following the rules. He claims Steppe has repeatedly called to harass him and made false claims about having an agreement with the Miami Police Department to get first crack at the families of recently deceased residents, which led the captain to file official complaints with state officials.
"He has an extremist ax to grind with the funeral industry," White says. "He's not truthful, and we do not want to be associated with him."
Nina Ashley, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services, says she can't comment on White's complaint. "In general, we don't confirm or deny an investigation unless action has been taken," she says.
Gary Collins, the EPA's burial-at-sea coordinator for the Southeast region, confirms "getting a call from a competitor" about Steppe. But Collins also says he doubts Steppe is breaking any federal laws because burials at sea are "one of the few things where there is not that much red tape."
Steppe, meanwhile, refused to wade into the conflict. After initially talking enthusiastically to New Times about his burial business — and even offering to let a reporter tag along and help toss a body into the Atlantic — he abruptly changed his mind a week later.
"If I give you names, addresses, phone numbers, and dates, and the opportunity to take pictures of actual burials at sea, it could be used against me," Steppe said vaguely before failing to respond to subsequent messages from New Times.
Though Steppe was adamant he's done nothing wrong, he was equally convinced that a conspiracy of funeral homes and competitors such as White would soon try to destroy him over his low prices.
"When I began this endeavor, I knew folks from the funeral homes and their national, state, and local associations would do what they could to harm my efforts, legally or otherwise," he said.
Complaints aside, last he spoke to New Times, Steppe said he'd keep driving his van — and he'd still drop any body into the ocean for $500, drawing a contrast to expensive, traditional burials.
"With me," Steppe said, "it's a clean and easy transition from their home to the sea."
It would not be a surprise if it turns out that this guy is a cannibal and he is taking the bodies out to sea and filleting them and then selling the meat back to the local Haitian restaurants.