After Naomi Mihara's husband Alan died of a brain haemorrhage three weeks short of his 44th birthday, she cast around for ways to celebrate his life. They had been schoolfriends and grown up together in Japan, before relocating to the UK, where they set up their own business. They had been married for 20 years. "He left us very suddenly. In the morning, he took our five-year-old daughter to school. By lunch he was gone," she says.
Mihara decided to go ahead with Alan's birthday party at the London studio where he'd filmed commercials, and released some ashes into the sea at Studland, Dorset, where the family used to go on holiday. But it was only when a friend mentioned the possibility of launching a loved one's ashes into space that Mihara hit upon a fitting way to celebrate his life. She came across an American company called Celestis, which propels the ashes of the departed into orbit. "It seemed to fit with my philosophy that you return to the universe after you die," said Mihara, "Also, we were both big fans of Star Trek."
The high cost of space travel means sending all of someone's ashes into space is out of the reach of all but the super-rich, but Celestis offers several options for those who want to launch a symbolic portion of cremated remains or "cremains" as they call them.
"The sense of exploration is what makes space so fascinating," says Celestis spokeswoman Susan Schonfeld. "It's not just watching a rocket go up; people sending off the remains of their loved ones gather from all over the world and come to the launch-site area, they stay in the same hotel together, they attend pre-launch briefings and a family memorial service; it creates such a bond."
The idea is taking off: the first memorial flight lifted off a decade ago and carried the ashes of 27 people. Now, says Schonfeld, Celestis is looking to get numbers up to 1,000 per rocket. "Space is becoming very busy," she adds. "There are plenty of flights."
Packages range in price from $495 to $67,500 (about 245 to 33,270) depending on how many ashes are sent, and how far they go. And couples who want to share their final journey can mix their ashes in one container; one half's ashes can be stored in a bank vault in Houston, Texas, until their partner dies.
"Earth Rise" is Celestis' cheapest option, sending remains on a 15-minute round-trip on a rocket launched into space, before engraved capsules and modules parachute back to earth and are returned to loved ones as a keepsake. The "Earth Orbit" package, meanwhile, involves taking cremains on a mission, alongside a commercial or scientific satellite. They stay in orbit for the duration of the mission, and are completely consumed by the earth's atmosphere on re-entry.
The company plans to introduce a "Lunar" service by 2009 to allow cremains to orbit the moon and be deposited on its surface. Reservations are already being taken; the first person lined up to be laid to rest in this way is astrogeologist Mareta West, who was responsible for selecting the Apollo 11 lunar-landing site. She died in 1998; but two grams of her ashes are now waiting for lift-off. There are also plans for a "Voyager" service which will leave the Earth-Moon system on a permanent celestial journey.
Mihara chose the "Earth Orbit" package for her husband. She ended up with two opportunities to witness Alan's ashes going up in a rocket after Celestis offered her a bonus flight because so many missions were delayed following the Columbia space-shuttle disaster in 2003. In April this year she went with her daughter, Jodie, 14, to New Mexico to see the rocket launch; it released the cremated remains of more than 200 people. "I was quite surprised by my reaction," she says. "I didn't think I'd be very emotional but there were a lot of tears. It felt like another chapter in my life coming to a close."
Not surprisingly, there is a Star Trek link to the memorial programme. The ashes of the series' creator, Gene Roddenberry, have been fired into orbit, while those of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, were on board the New Mexico rocket. Still flying high, the 1960s counter-culture icon and advocate of psychedelic drug use Timothy Leary also blasted his remains into the ether, as have assorted sci-fi fans, astronomers, geologists, housewives, doctors and musicians.
Next spring, Mihara plans to travel to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, when a second sample of Alan's ashes are due to launch, along with those of 207 others, on board the biggest memorial space-flight to date. An online roll of "participants" features tributes. Some are sad, some poetic, and others light-hearted ("To infinity and beyond!") or upbeat ("Phone home!").
For those concerned about littering space with all these earthly remains, the Celestis spacecraft is designed not to create orbital debris pollution, in line with the regulations of the US Federal Aviation Administration.
UK Celestis distributor Fergus Jamieson predicts that demand will grow as Britain becomes ever-more secular. He also believes that the venture ties in with an increase in the popularity of events that celebrate lives rather than mourn deaths. "We appreciate that there needs to be a grieving process," he says. "But after that there should be an opportunity to remember the good times."
For those who want such an uplifting experience involving smaller rockets closer to home, Jamieson also runs his own business specialising in going out with a bang. His Heavens Above memorial displays include fireworks specially modified to incorporate cremation ashes. "The fireworks services I have attended are the most moving thing I've ever seen," he says. "The families cry, but they are tears of joy."
What a way to go: Alternative burials
Lie with squirrels
There are more than 160 woodland burial sites across the UK, offering a green, aesthetically pleasing option. These plots dispense with headstones and standard graveyard paraphernalia; instead, each grave is marked by a tree or shrub and a number. www.woodlandburials.co.uk
Back to nature
Promession, invented in 1999 by a Swedish biologist, involves submerging the body in liquid nitrogen, until it is brittle, then reducing it to a powder using a vibrating pad. The remains are then placed inside a biodegradable coffin that breaks down within six to 12 months, returning its nutrient-rich remnants to the earth. www.promessafoundation.org
US firm LifeGem Memorials turns the cremated ashes of a loved one into a diamond. The process, which takes about 16 weeks, involves heating the ashes to 3,000C and subjecting the remains to huge pressures in a diamond press. The end product a raw crystal is then polished and shaped to wear, or admire on the mantelpiece. www.lifegem-uk.com
Cremation can release harmful chemicals such as mercury. Resomation is the eco-friendly substitute. It involves dissolving the body by placing it in a high-pressure chamber filled with potassium hydroxide and water, heated to 170C. The liquid is filtered away, leaving a white "bioash". www.resomation.com.
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