How Space Burial Works

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.

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