Do you want to have tea or coffee in a mug—a very, very special mug with a very, very special connection? Or perhaps you want to have your soup or noodles in, again, a very, very special bowl with a very, very special connection? Hold your breath: artists and designers can now use the ashes of a loved one to fashion that mug or bowl, or if you prefer, use the ashes of a loved one as a glaze on a mug or bowl or any other article of pottery you specify. And don’t be surprised, as this trend of using your loved ones ashes in an “unconventional, artistic, creative manner” has been around and growing for quite a while.

Tracing this development  in the United States for instance, Kate Kershner wrote quite a few years ago in “HowStuffWorks” that  what happens after we die is getting a little more interesting. “It used to be that close to literally everyone in the United States was buried after death. In a casket, 6 feet under, full stop. But by the mid-20th century, cremation was becoming an increasingly viable option. Now, nearly half of Americans are being cremated, with over 65% of living folks in the U.S. and Canada reporting that they are seriously considering or have decided on cremation after death. So that means a lot of ashes are going to be sitting in a lot of closets…You can carry your pet in a pendant, or your mom in a mug. And no, human ashes aren›t going to present a health hazard. Not only are they fired in an extremely hot kiln, but they›ve already been, well, incinerated. The ashes pose no risk, even if you›re eating cereal from a bowl made out of them…” I’ve written in an earlier column about the ashes of loved ones, including pets, being turned into diamonds.

For those who don’t want to opt for the ashes of a loved one to be part of a mug or bowl or to be turned into a diamond, there are other options, like a moon burial or a space burial. On January 6, 1998 the United States University of Arizona News Services carried a news item with the heading “Lunar spacecraft carries ashes, special tribute to Shoemaker” and elaborated that there could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon. Shoemaker, best known for his work on extraterrestrial impacts and for his later collaboration with his wife, Carolyn, in the study and discovery of comets—he was co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9—was killed on July 18, 1997, in a car accident in Australia.

“Tonight, the ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker are to be launched in a memorial capsule aboard Lunar Prospector to the moon. The polycarbonate capsule, one-and-three-quarters inches long and seventh-tenths inch in diameter, is carried in a vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve mounted deep inside the spacecraft. Around the capsule is wrapped a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, and a passage from William Shakespeare›s enduring love story, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ …”

According to Wikipedia, space burial refers to the launching of samples of cremated remains into space. Missions may go into orbit around the Earth or toextraterrestrial bodies such as the Moon, or further into space. “Samples of cremated remains are not scattered in space so as not to contribute to space debris. Ashes remain sealed in their small capsules until the spacecraft burns up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere or reach their extraterrestrial destinations…Since 1997, the private company Celestis has conducted numerous space  burials …In 2014, Celestis launched Celestis Pets, a pet memorial spaceflight service for animal cremated remains.” Other companies that conduct space burials include Elysium Space, Ascending Memories, Orbital Memorials, and Aura Nova Space Limited.

Space burials can be in deep or outer space, orbital—i.e. launched to orbit around the earth, suborbital— “short flights that cross the boundary of space without attempting to reach orbital velocity and are a cost-effective method of space burial. The remains do not burn up and are either recovered or lost.”  In January 2006, Warren E. Leary reported in the New York Times that NASA had launched a spacecraft on a historic first mission to Pluto—on a nine-year, three-billion-mile journey to the edge of the solar system. The liftoff, he wrote, also paid homage to Pluto’s discoverer, the astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, who in 1930 became the only American to find a planet in the solar system. He died at 90, in 1997 and some of his remains were among the commemorative items aboard the spacecraft which was programmed to arrive for its closest approach to Pluto on 14 July 2015.

So far, it is reported that ten orbital spaceflights carrying remain samples have been launched to orbit around the earth, with one carrying 300 remain samples. However, not all these flights have been successful. Suborbital space flights, with one carrying 200 remains samples, have a higher success rate. According to Wikipedia, suborbital flights briefly fly ashes into space then return to Earth where they can be recovered. Small samples of remains are launched to minimise the cost of launching mass into space, thereby making such services more affordable. Notable individuals whose remains were launched into space include James Doohan, an actor best known for his portrayal of Scotty in the popular television and film series Star Trek, who died in July 2005.

But questions remain about unconventional or undesired disposal of remains. In October this year, David Neustein, Associate, School of Architecture, University of Technology, Sydney, while expounding in “The Conversation” on a new approach to burials and the drawbacks of cremations wrote: “All it requires is a new way of thinking about what happens to our bodies when we die.” But what about those spirits of the dead who don›t want new approaches applied to their remains? There are innumerable accounts which establish clearly that many of the departed are averse to having their remains disturbed. For instance, it is widely believed that the Catacombs of Paris, where the relocated remains of millions of people have been fashioned into walls and pillars, are haunted because disrespect was shown to the dead. More on this intriguing subject and some answers to questions surrounding new approaches and options in the next column.

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