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Ronald Reagan Approved Dennis Wilson’s Burial At Sea Because He was a Big Fan of The Beach Boys

Photo Credit: 1. Harry Langdon / Getty Images 2. Michael Putland / Getty Images
Photo Credit: 1. Harry Langdon / Getty Images 2. Michael Putland / Getty Images

US President Ronald Reagan was not afraid to admit he had a deep admiration for The Beach Boys. He made it very clear, having the band perform for him multiple times. He even granted them a favor, promising to help in times of trouble. When co-founder Dennis Wilson unexpectedly passed away, his bandmates cashed in the offer, requesting Reagan’s help with his burial.

Ronald Reagan was a big fan of The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys holding a surfboard
The Beach Boys. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

The relationship between The Beach Boys and Ronald Reagan began in 1981 at the latter’s Presidential Inauguration, at which the band performed. Reagan loved the group so much that he even declared them “America’s band.”

The Beach Boys performed at Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC for the next two years, until Interior Secretary James Watts barred them from doing so in 1983, saying they attracted “the wrong element” to the crowd. This triggered protests among the band’s fans, and even prompted First Lady Nancy Reagan to personally call them and apologize.

The Beach Boys attended the White House two months later to perform for a Special Olympics benefit, where they raised a total of $300,000. At the event, Reagan told the band that if they ever needed help with anything, he would be more than happy to oblige. This came in handy six months later, when Dennis Wilson died.

The only member of The Beach Boys to surf drowns

Dennis Wilson sitting on the hood of a car
Dennis Wilson. (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Dennis Wilson went diving at Marina del Rey, California three days after Christmas to recover his ex-wife’s belongings, which had been thrown into the water three years prior. He was suffering from alcohol and drug addiction at this point in his life, and both substances were present in his system that day. Despite this, they didn’t cause his death. That was caused by a shallow-water blackout after his dive, which caused him to drown.

Wilson was scheduled to enter rehab for his addiction, but never made it. His death came as a surprise, and Reagan heard of the news while he was taping his annual New Year’s radio address. It didn’t take long for him to become involved in the musician’s burial arrangements.

Ronald Reagan exercises his influence

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan standing with The Beach Boys
President Ronald Reagan speaking after a concert by The Beach Boys, during a reception and picnic in honor of the 15th Anniversary of the Special Olympics, circa 1983. (Photo Credit: White House Photo Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Wilson’s mother and wife remembered Reagan’s offer to help if the boys ever needed anything, and they contacted him to grant a burial at sea. Such a burial is typically reserved for military veterans, and civilians can only receive one upon approval by a vice admiral or higher authority. Wilson had never served, so a burial at sea would prove to be a challenge. Reagan, determined to help, quickly set the plan into action.

First, Reagan’s Cabinet of Affairs contacted the US Coast Guard to conduct discreet research to allow for the burial. Then, the Department of Transportation formally asked the top officers of the 11th Coast Guard District in Long Beach to conduct the burial. Reagan exercised his influence and got the matter dealt with in one week.

Dennis Wilson is buried at sea

Headshot of Dennis Wilson
Dennis Wilson. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images)

On January 4, 1984, the Coast Guard pulled into Marina de Rey to pick up Dennis Wilson’s family and friends. Wilson’s wife, Shawn Love, three of his children and his little brother were onboard to participate in the ceremony. They traveled on the patrol boat Point Judith for 45 minutes before reaching international waters, the depth of which were 600 feet.

They then proceeded with the burial, with Love saying, “That’s what he wanted done with his body. Wherever he is, I know he’ll be glad that we’re doing it.” Wilson’s older brother, Brian, did not attend the ceremony and said his burial at sea “seemed wrong to me.” Despite attending the ceremony, his younger brother was also upset with the decision, wishing he could have been buried in Inglewood, next to their father.

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Even some American citizens were upset with the burial, saying Wilson hadn’t earned the honor. However, the White House received praise and thanked the Coast Guard for the service’s swiftness and professionalism in resolving the matter on such short notice.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!