Ashes Become Stardust

Rip: A Rocket Can Send Your Final Remains Into Temporary Orbit Around The Earth -- Making Outer Space, Truly, The Final Frontier.

April 23, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

It's the kind of idea a stargazer could love, part of you orbiting in space for a few years before becoming one with the heavens in the sudden flash of a disintegrating rocket.

No, it's not an offer from a California cult. It's the grand farewell promised clients by a company called Celestis, which this week sent the cremated remains of Timothy Leary, Gene Roddenberry and 22 other deceased dreamers rocketing into space from the Canary Islands, turning the final frontier into the next burying ground.

"The majority were everyday folks. We had a truck driver. We had a tax accountant, people who owned restaurants," says Richard Braastad, spokesman for the Houston-based company. "All these people shared an interest in space when they were alive. This is really a way for the families to help their loved ones achieve their dreams, at least in a symbolic way."

Taking the last ride on a Pegasus rocket is just the latest, most spectacular entry in a business that's handling an increasing volume of cremated remains. Currently about 20 percent of Americans opt for cremation, but surveys show about 40 percent say they just might.

Jack Springer, president of the Cremation Association of North America, says he has heard of people having their remains incorporated in fireworks displays, spread on golf courses, scattered on the warning track at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Some hunters have even chosen to have their remains packed into shotgun shells.

"Your friends can go out and give you one last salute," says Springer. "I've told my kids there's a reef in the Bahamas where I want some of my remains spread."

An Illinois company makes pendants and rings with tiny containers. Some artists will add grams of remains to molten glass and produce a sculpture. In every case, the main consideration, says Springer, is to make sure the ceremony "is meaningful to the individual and the family."

In ancient civilizations, the cremation ritual represented the rebirth of the soul. Legends tell of a descending angel gathering the soul in a mystical urn. Funeral pyres were common in ancient Greece. Vikings set their dead warriors and kings adrift in flaming ships.

Beginning around A.D. 400, cremation fell out of favor throughout the Roman Empire as Christianity became the dominant religion under Constantine. Only in the last century has the practice returned. It is used in about 70 percent of the deaths in Great Britain, and about 98 percent of the time in Japan, where land is scarce.

In Maryland, about 17 percent of deaths end with cremations. State law considers cremated remains final disposition.

"People can pretty much scatter remains where they want to be or have a right to be," says George MacNabb, president fo the Cremation Society of Maryland. "Most families, if they choose to scatter the remains, will do it themselves."

State law, however, does not allow you to scatter the remains in Maryland waters. Ceremonies at sea must occur at least 3 miles from shore.

Though commonly referred to as "ashes," MacNabb notes that what ends up being delivered to the family is more the consistency of sand and fills a quart container. That's much more than Celestis takes on its rocket shots.

The containers launched aboard a Spanish satellite Monday were about the size of a lipstick case and held about 7 grams of cremated remains. The person's name and a personal message also went aloft. Braastad says Leary's message was, "Peace, Love, Light, You, Me, One."

"One person quoted from the Bible," he says, and "there was `Live long and prosper.' "

That quote was not Roddenberry's.

Celestis charges $4,800 for preparation and flight and keeps the money in a trust fund until a successful launch and one orbit. Monday's rocket is expected to fall out of orbit in two to 10 years, re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn up like a falling star.

So far, six people have signed on for the next flight, scheduled for late summer, but the phone lines have started to heat up since Monday's launch.

"We've had a lot of people call in," says Braastad. "People leaving messages and that sort of thing."

He says each launch has room for 150, but the company will settle for 50 clients. Celestis asks for two 7-gram samples from each voyager. That way, "if the first launch malfunctions, blows up, goes off course, whatever, we have a backup," says Braastad. "We make very clear to our clients that space travel still is a very risky business." Even if you're already dead.

Of course, any company dealing with outer space has to have an address in cyberspace. In this case, you can reach Celestis at http: //www.celestis.com, or the old-fashioned way, by dialing 800-ORBIT11.

The Cremation Association offers several brochures for the cost of a self-addressed stamped envelope and $1.01 to cover postage. Its address is: CANA, 401 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill., 60611.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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