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Heavenly Bodies

Space burials sell a shot at immortality

The death of my grandma wasn’t funny until I thought about sending her into space. Sitting in the florally furnished funeral parlor, I was presented with three space burial options courtesy of the company Celestis: sending her into orbit; sending her to the moon; or purchasing the deluxe Voyager Package, which would send her on a “permanent celestial journey, way beyond the moon.” As one of the most terrestrial people I have ever known—she possessed not only a reluctance to fly but also a general aversion to leaving her seat—I struggled to envisage my grandmother above the ether, or to emotionally connect with such a remote sendoff. Whereas I imagine space as an isolating oblivion, not unlike death itself, Celestis framed their burials as a shot at immortality, realized among the stars.

Celestis has very much determined the blueprint for space burials. Responsible for the first-ever space memorial flight in 1997, they have launched the remains of LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and physicist Gerard O’Neill into space. Their business model relies on renting commercial space on existing interstellar voyages, rather than chartering their own flights. Starting at $2,995, customers can send one gram of their remains into space, while loved ones are invited to spectate their final mission from a “preferred location.” Choosing from a selection of different package deals, these relatives can further customize their experience with keepsakes or memorial events, from astronaut dinners to local tours. In the past twenty years, various competitors have emerged offering alternative services and methods. For instance, the UK-based company Aura Flights deploys Hydrogen balloons to carry ashes into space. However, as Charles Chafer, cofounder of Celestis, concisely put it to me, this remains a small and uncompetitive field because “space is hard.”

Conducting a space burial involves marrying two industries—funerals and aerospace—that have become increasingly liberalized in the maelstrom of free-market capitalism. Now that most Americans favor cremation over burials, they are presented with new options for preserving their remains: becoming a vinyl record, or a “diamond,” or even being sealed up in their partner’s sex toy. Space burials have benefited from this cultural shift, in tandem with the rise of privatized space travel. On a practical level, Celestis has been able to rapidly expand its operations by relying on companies like SpaceX to increase the frequency of launches. In fact, the company claims to have grown by 60 percent every year for the past four years. As the likes of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos have propelled their rich friends to space, they have also espoused a vision of the future in which space travel is accessible to everyone. Companies like Beyond Burials, Celestis, and Elysium Space bring that reality to you now, with two minor caveats: you will be dead, and “you” will only be a ceremonial portion of you, somewhere between a toe and an ear’s worth.

The rise of commercial space travel has not just revolutionized the practicalities of space flight; it has also shaped the way we view space itself. Historically, black holes, hurtling comets, and solar flares have haunted our cultural imagination. The darkness of space has provided a vehicle for our thanatophobic anxieties—eliciting the endlessness, loneliness, and detachment of death—while dying astronauts have been reified in pop culture as symbols of human corporeality and fragility. Watching films like Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see these terrors concretized as our heroes float, umbilical cords severed, toward a silent yet violent demise. Though in fact only three people have ever died in space—Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov—our hyperbolized idea of its danger speaks to a primal desire for control over the chaos of the universe and a need to find meaning within our comparatively small lives.

But as technologist and designer Neilson Koerner-Safrata explains in his research project KOSMOS/NEKROS, the popular understanding of death in space has changed. As he writes, “the cosmologies of the past sacralize space as the site where the divine epilogue of life takes place. Today, space is now being framed on our behalf as a moratorium on EXIT or NO EXIT, where what is at stake for life must be decided up there or down here.” Put differently, space once seemed to be the ultimate reminder of human mortality and insignificance, but now it seems to represent the opposite—yet another domain for human domination. Koerner-Safrata identifies one reason for the change as the “techno-libertarians and champions of space settlement [who] sermonize on behalf of space: ‘humans need a frontier,’ ‘space is human destiny.’” Space is no longer the terrain of martyrs and deities but rather that of hubristic billionaires who hope to prolong human life by expanding the landscape of human habitation. The dawn of space tourism and the images it evokes—cruise liners, cut-offs, and caipirinhas—has had a normalizing effect, making even the most inhospitable atmosphere for humans seem approachable.

Space once seemed to be the ultimate reminder of human mortality and insignificance, but now it seems to represent the opposite.

Capitalizing on this cultural shift, space burial companies similarly frame their products as life-extending. Dr. Andrew Cutting, a Lecturer at London Met University, has described these companies as “immorality brokers” who promise “posthumous liberation and fulfillment” where medical technologies have failed to keep the deceased alive. Opting for this kind of burial, you can avoid archiving your loved ones in the past (the cemetery) by projecting them outwards into the ultimate metonymy for the future (outer space). Akin to cryogenics or cloning, Cutting argues that “these projects proceed, under the auspices of scientific plausibility, by redefining life as unique patterns of information—DNA code, synaptic states, and so on—and then by trying to rescue these patterns from the usual process of decay occurring at death.” Cutting’s insights have ultimately proved prescient, as Celestis has recently expanded into “off planet DNA storage and preservation.” Clients now have the opportunity to send a powder containing their entire genome into space. This dust is akin to an existential get-out clause, insuring clients against the finality of death. Appealing to a resurrectionist fantasy, it provides the illusion of individual survival, irrespective of the perils humanity may broadly face.

The implied futurism of space burials comes not only from the newly perceived accessibility of space but also from the relegation of the earth to the past. Referencing Gerard K. O’Neill, Charles Chafer understands space travel as not just a matter of curiosity or consumerism but as a requirement for humanity’s future existence. In continuation with the aspiration of space settlement, he has explained that Celestis is “driven by an overarching goal to open up space for human activity.” Death in space is framed as part of the broader project of enabling life. Of course, commercial space travel is largely antithetical to the immediate preservation of human life, being a significant source of carbon emissions and exacerbating the depletion of the ozone layer. But for those who erroneously collapse all existential threats into one—be it nuclear war, climate change, or the eventual vaporizing of the sun—space travel presents an alternative future where earth is not a forever home but a stopgap: the best option for human habitation until it isn’t.

We now live at a time when the very sentiment of “resting in peace” is being challenged. Climate change has already had a profound impact on the funeral industry across the United States; headstones are disintegrating in Californian wildfires, and graves in Alaska are turning into swamps due to melting permafrost. In Louisiana, floating coffins—dredged up and cast adrift by floods—appear as specters, foreshadowing a treacherous future. Cemeteries now face a difficult decision about how to negotiate these threats; they are perceived as being more than mere businesses, providing a final and indefinite resting place for people’s loved ones, but financial and legal requirements often make relocation implausible. Cremation offers a way out of this quagmire. It allows for another ending to our lives that is less vulnerable to terrestrial concerns, whether in the form of extreme weather events, overcrowding, or our very own putrefaction. Space burials take this logic to an extreme, enabling us to escape the earth’s limits and displace the posthumous desire for permanence from the ground to the skies. Why be landfill when you can be stardust (or rather, orbiting space debris) instead?

When astronauts go up into space, some experience a spiritual shift after viewing the world at a distance. Described as “The Overview Effect,” seeing the globe in its entirety is said to highlight human existence as beautiful, fragile, and interconnected. Grief, in many ways, accomplishes the same thing. Seeing someone die forces us to evaluate our lives at a distance and appreciate their transience; it heightens the significance of our relationships relative to life’s more menial stresses. William Shatner, known to many as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, experienced the coalescence of these two conceptual shifts while on a Blue Origin flight last year. Describing the experience of being in space, he explained: “I was crying . . . I didn’t know what I was crying about. I had to go off some place and sit down and think, what’s the matter with me? And I realized I was in grief.” Shatner clarified that it was “death that [he] saw in space”, whereas he felt a life force “coming from the planet—the blue, the beige and the white.” He “wept for the earth because [he] realized it’s dying.”

Grief is the reaction to an empty space that we intuitively try to fill or ignore. In the case of my grandma, I’ve struggled to look at her unrelenting absence head-on, but I’ve allowed myself to feel her loss by indulging in our once-shared pastimes; origami, scrabble, ice cream for dinner, novelty earrings, and annoying my dad, to name a few. Acts of continuity and recollection in the face of grief can help us process our emotions, but they can also lead to denialism, enabling us to live in the realm of what was without facing up to what is. Environmental grief takes a similar form. As the parameters of human existence are renegotiated by climate change, we are motivated to imagine alternative ways of being that feel familiar and secure. Space, presumed to be a void, becomes a convenient landscape upon which desires for eternal life can be projected and feelings of loss can be negated. This impulse to prolong our existence in the cosmos—whether alive or through a space burial—speaks to the anxieties of living on a dying planet. Looking above for answers, however, might be more analogous to burying one’s head in the sand; to romanticize the deathlessness of space is to ignore its lifelessness too.