How Space Burial Works

After repeatedly hearing "Beam me up, Scotty" during his "Star Trek" career, actor James Doohan elected to have a little bit of himself beamed up into space after he died.
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Under the wide and starry sky / Dig the grave and let me lie ...

So begins the self-penned epitaph engraved on Robert Louis Stevenson's tomb in Western Samoa. If the author of "Treasure Island" could see us now, interring remains among the "wide and starry sky" instead of beneath it, would it strike him as strange? Would his spirit of adventure and discovery deem it a fitting journey, or would he have been of two minds, like his characters Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?


Space burial is but one option offered in a growing catalog of posthumous adventure packages, a market fueled by the sentimental or narcissistic urge to mark our passing with rites reflecting our individuality. These days, like pharaohs of old, more people are "taking it with them," outfitting their coffins with domestic comforts from favorite foods to cell phones, video games and cars.

The possibilities after death don't stop at tchotchkes. Agents are also standing by to consign -- and confine -- our remains to burial plots that would have made our grandparents plotz.

Some consider a diamond created from the cremains of a loved one to be a girl's best friend; others prefer to go out with a bang, entombing their remains in the tiny steel, copper and plastic "coffins" of bullets and shotgun shells, or possibly fireworks [sources: LifeGem; Holy Smoke; Angel's Flight]. Ocean lovers might opt to face their ebb tide as a memorial reef constructed of concrete and cremains [source: Eternal Reefs].

Finally, for those who prefer their final resting place out on the final frontier, there's the infrequent flyer plan, following in the phantom footsteps of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and "Star Trek" actor James "Scotty " Doohan -- a five-minute mission 70 miles (113 kilometers) above our big, blue marble.

Wait, five-minute mission?

You read correctly. Some space burials go more boldly than others, and package prices reflect the difference. Unless you can afford astronomical fees, your money may buy you only a brief space hop or a few trips around the block.

Even so, many of us would give anything to visit space. Sure, we'd rather tag along as crew, but being carted along as cargo will do in a pinch. Until the Virgin Galactic flight prices descend to something less than the cost of a 30-year mortgage, most of us won't get a ticket until we punch our tickets.

Now, let's lift the lid on these missile mortuaries and see what intergalactic interment entails.


Beyond the Great Beyond

Space burials came about as a side business, an offshoot of the burgeoning commercial space sector. Like any shipping and transport business, companies hauling cargo to space prefer their cargo holds full. Gram-weight portions of human remains don't weigh much or take up much room, so they easily squeeze into a craft carrying, say, a commercial satellite or science experiment.

There's nothing unusual or untoward about shipping our cremains as cargo. Human remains are transported commercially on Earth as a matter of course; as long as they are properly packaged and metered, you can even mail them [source: USPS]. Moreover, transport providers -- terrestrial or otherwise -- tend to respect the sensitivity of the service they provide and take pains to ensure that families feel comfortable with the process.


Celestis, the sole provider of space burials when we wrote this article, invites families to gather at the liftoff site and bear witness as their loved ones shoot into space. Before the flight, the company offers tours of the local facilities and conducts a memorial service in which participants share memories of the departed. Celestis records the service on a keepsake DVD or VHS tape and makes biographies of the deceased available on a Web site.

Of course, if your vision of space burial derives from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" -- with your body floating gracefully into space in a burnished black torpedo reminiscent of a 1980s sunglasses case -- then it's time to scale back your expectations. In actuality, a lipstick- or watch-battery-sized tube will transport a "symbolic portion" (1 gram or 7 grams) of your remains heavenward [source: Celestis]. Nor will you receive much privacy as you are packed into a cargo tube with your fellow passengers.

Celestis acts as an intermediary and relies on commercial spacecraft companies, such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Orbital Sciences Corp., Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (better known as SpaceX) and UP Aerospace to provide transport to space. The typical one-to-four-stage rocket hearse ranges from 20-92.5 feet (6-28.2 meters) tall and weighs in at 780-266,000 pounds (354-120,700 kilograms) [sources: Celestis; UP Aerospace; Encyclopedia Astronautica]. It never needs to stop for traffic, with or without a police escort, and you'll be in space a brisk 90 seconds following launch -- because, let's face it, you've waited long enough.

As we'll explore in the next section, where you go from there is up to you and your pocketbook.


Now, Voyager

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that sending cargo into space is anything but cheap, so Celestis offers four kinds of space memorial service to match various budgets and goals [source: Celestis].

Earth Rise provides a parabolic flight during which your ashes will spend four to five minutes in space before returning to the ground. Celestis then recovers the capsule, validates its journey into the black and returns the family's portion as a keepsake. On April 28, 2007, the partial remains of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, actor James Doohan and almost 200 others took this jaunt aboard a UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL rocket. Cost: $995 for 1 gram of remains.


Earth Orbit launches the remains into orbit, although not forever -- more like 10 to 240 years. Your mileage may vary according to flight mechanics, ship and orbital path. When the orbit decays, the craft and the remains will vaporize in the Earth's atmosphere like a shooting star. Cooper's and Doohan's remains were also on this flight, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket, on Aug. 3, 2008, but the rocket failed two minutes after launch. Subsequent flights have been more successful. Cost: $2,995 for 1 gram of remains.

Luna shoots your ashes to the moon, hitching a ride with research payloads already headed to the surface or lunar orbit. So far, only one set of partial remains has made this trip, when Eugene Shoemaker's ashes traveled to the moon aboard the NASA Lunar Prospector mission. Shoemaker is best remembered as the co-discoverer of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Cost: $9,995 for 1 gram of remains.

Voyager will send you on the grand tour, beyond the solar system and into the vast deep of space itself -- once it launches. The remains of Gene and Majel Roddenberry are scheduled to take this trip in 2014. Cost: $12,500 for 1 gram of remains.

All of the prices listed are for 1 gram of remains. For twice that price, you can send 7 grams instead and, for an additional 50 percent on top of either price, Celestis will launch samples of two people together [source: Celestis]

Other space memorial services have been offered in the past, but the companies appear to now be defunct, leaving Celestis as the only game in town.

With all this talk of space burials, it's worth considering how all of this might play out in the future. In this next section, we'll look at the face of space burial as humankind explores the dark frontier and colonizes distant worlds.


Far-out Future Funerals

Whether we upload our consciousnesses into computers, grow clones or change out our squishy, organic bits for shiny, new cybernetics, chances are we'll retain a soft spot in our cold, metal hearts for what becomes of our remains.

That hasn't stopped sci-fi authors from contemplating gray areas that would make disposing of our bodies trickier and more nuanced than we imagine. "Star Trek" popularized the idea of transport via matter-energy-matter conversion, in which bodies are literally destroyed and reconstituted across thousands of miles, forcing us to contemplate whether our bodies hold intrinsic value, or are merely assemblages of matter to be sloughed off like a snakeskin. After all, with a few exceptions such as our eyes, cerebral cortex neurons and possibly heart muscle, some researchers have theorized that the bulk of our body's cells might get replaced, on average, every seven to 10 years [source: Wade].


Are those few remaining bits of us significant? Are we more than the sum of our parts?

Science fiction doesn't stop there, however. Philip K. Dick, for example, posited a consciousness that was kept alive after physical death within its body's brain, in conjunction with machinery and cryonic suspension.

Of course, it's conceivable that science might one day conquer death altogether, but we're interested in burial, so let's assume we're still mortal by the time humans set out for the nearest stars. How might we deal with our departed in this new space age?

Whatever our preferences, it's likely that certain practical realities, such as velocity, health and the shortage of materials, would limit our options.

Let's consider velocity first. Barring some advanced, warplike technology that we can't yet conceive of, a ship traveling between stars will need to ramp up to some percentage of light speed, or c. Depending on available technology and velocity achieved, this could take months, years or generations -- meaning our imaginary ship could not afford to waste precious braking time or fuel to release a body or ashes into space, and anything it released while zooming along would retain its velocity and pose a serious threat to anything struck by it.

Alastair Reynolds took the idea of high-velocity burial to an extreme in his Revelation Space series, when a dying man requested that his remains be released as the ship crested light speed, thereby achieving "burial at c."

Of course, from a scarcity standpoint, this begs the question of whether we would dispose of human remains at all. During interplanetary travel -- aboard a generation ship, for example, in which people live entire lifetimes en route to distant star systems -- human remains might prove too valuable not to reuse. By mass, the human body consists mostly of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus -- all essential elements to sustaining life. Looked at another way, our component cells contain 65-90 percent water, arguably the most valuable substance in the universe, especially to people alone in the black desert of interstellar space.

Such concerns could be ameliorated if humanity has mastered matter-energy relationships or the ability to build matter efficiently from raw materials, such as interstellar hydrogen. Even so, keeping a body around would be difficult in a closed environment, unless the air recycling system were capable of removing the harmful gases released by a decaying body. Alternatives might include embalming, freezing or mummification, assuming available space could be found.

These are all practical concerns, however. How might cultural and religious traditions cope with the realities of space burial now and in the future?


Sky Pilots: Space Burial in Religious Terms

Whoever first called chaplains "sky pilots" probably never imagined clergymen and religious scholars wrestling with how to handle funereal matters above the wild, blue yonder. Although burial rites are not solely religious, secular burial ceremonies can more easily adjust to mission requirements and limitations than can religious rites, particularly among orthodox or fundamentalist sects.

Some adjustments are already in place, and more are likely to follow in the future. Most belief systems allow for the impossibility of certain observances under extreme circumstances, and space flight certainly qualifies. For example, while orbiting the Earth, Jewish astronaut Ilan Ramon adjusted his Sabbath observation to match Earth time; had he based it on orbital sundowns, the weekly day of rest would have occurred every nine hours and lasted 90 minutes.


When the first Malaysian astronaut was announced, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia developed a 12-page guide outlining how Muslim astronauts could fulfill their religious requirements, including prayer, ritual cleaning and burial. It stated that the body should be brought back to Earth for burial if possible but, barring that, it should be buried in space with a simple ceremony.

Space travel and colonization will inevitably raise difficult questions for belief systems across the human experience. Islam rejects cremation. Traditional Judaism requires the whole body to be buried in the ground and considers embalming and mummification to be disrespectful.

Baha'i burials require a body to be buried within one hour's travel from the place of death. Its tenets make allowances for modes of transport such as ships or trains, but Baha'i interpreters might struggle with incorporating teleporters or starships traveling at half the speed of light, capable of covering 670.6 million miles (more than 1 billion kilometers) in a single hour [source: Bahá'u'lláh, Shoghi Effendi and Universal House of Justice].

Many Buddhist traditions require the living to perform certain acts to ease the transition of the deceased to the next incarnation, which might not be possible without the proper assemblage of people.

Ceremonies in many faiths require specific or special materials, which could be difficult to transport through space and impossible to obtain on distant worlds. Would artificial versions be acceptable, if they were molecularly indistinguishable from the genuine article? Would substitutions from distant worlds be acceptable? After all, water from the Ganges can only be found in one place.

Some cultures and individuals also consider knowing the location of someone's remains to be important. For such people, interment in orbit around a star or planet might present the best solution, since they could always locate the spot in space. Cremation in a star also could offer an acceptable, even romantic, alternative. Perhaps deep-space caskets could be fitted with transponders.

Ultimately, space burial will test the limits of ceremonial flexibility across belief systems. The issue is not lack of respect for the tenets of a faith, but rather lack of resources to honor its every requirement.

Whatever else may come of it, how we address issues surrounding the end of life's journey will say a lot about how we build our common future.


Lots More Information

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