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Must read: Artificial reef near Miami is cemetery, diving attraction

MIAMI - About 45 feet beneath the ocean's surface lies a cemetery with gates, pathways, plaques and even benches.

The Neptune Memorial Reef, which opened last fall, is seen by its creators as a perfect final resting spot for those who loved the sea. They hope that one day the reef will cover 16 acres and have room for 125,000 remains.

'This is simply as good as it gets,' said Gary Levine, a diver who conceived the reef and is now a shareholder in the company that owns it.

The Neptune Memorial Reef is located in open waters 31/4 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, which means any certified diver can visit. The artificial reef's first phase allows for about 850 remains.

The ashes are mixed with cement designed for underwater use and fitted into a mold, which a diver then places and secures into the reef. A copper and bronze plaque is installed with the person's name, date of birth and death. There is also a line for a message.

Jim Hutslar, who manages the construction and deployment of the placements, said he wears sunglasses when mixing the remains with cement to hide his emotions, especially when the family of the deceased is present.

'I intentionally try to think about the person,' Hutslar said. 'I am pretty sentimental anyway.'

In one instance, a mother wanted to mix the cement and ashes of her son. She also left the imprints of her fingerprints and put a note into it.

'It's sad to see someone die, but this is almost a celebration of life,' said artist Kim Brandell, who created the reef's design. 'We call it 'life after life.'

In March, the remains of 93-year-old diver Bert Kilbride - who called himself 'The Last Pirate of the Caribbean' - were placed atop a column of the reef's main gate, because of his contributions to the sea. Kilbride was named the oldest living scuba diver in this year's Guinness Book of World Records.

'I think he would feel very honored,' his son Gary Kilbride said. 'This is somebody who has been connected to the sea his whole life.'