Fri. May 24th, 2024

Putting cremains on the moon is disrespectful – and bad policy

Jamie Roberts By Jamie Roberts May15,2024

Old folk tales suggested that anything lost on Earth magically migrated to the moon: money, cutlery, socks, perhaps even lost love. The philosopher Rene Descartes thought that souls migrated to craters named for them on the moon. The private company Celestis wants to send your ashes there, starting at just $12,995.

And it almost succeeded, but the private lunar lander that carried the cremains of a dog and 70 people didn’t make it to the moon in January, as originally planned.

Once it became known that a commercial lander was carrying human remains, objections mounted, especially from the Diné people. The Navajo nation, along with other cultures, consider the moon sacred. It was an eerie reprise from the 1990s when an official NASA spacecraft carried on board the ashes of pioneering lunar scientist Eugene Shoemaker.

NASA apologized for that incident and promised to consult on the matter in the future. It did not. Since the demise of the Peregrine lander mission — built by Astrobotic — the controversy has dropped out of the public eye. But we need to talk about this.

The issue of sending cremains to a celestial body that, because of our relationship with it, essentially belongs to all of us is not a private matter to be settled solely by companies offering such services and firms flying landers to the moon. After all, the moon is governed by treaty and, more importantly, is a deeply important human symbol and scientific archive. Despite the private nature of these mission payloads, the fact is they are taking place under a government program called CLPS — the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

What we send to the moon says a lot about who we are. Wealthy clients and the companies that cater to them appear to have gotten priority in this debate. Yet the government could issue regulations banning sending cremains to the moon via NASA and private American firms.

The spiritual — or, if you prefer, moral — argument is profound. But if you’re not convinced by it, there is a practical, utilitarian reason to ban cremains on the moon. And there’s a cautionary reason too, involving the slippery slope of unregulated non-scientific commercial vanity payloads.

First, we should recognize that the Diné make a valid argument, whether you are convinced by it or not. As something sacred in their worldview, the moon ought not be a burial ground, they say. The analogy may not be perfect, but imagine if I were to sell cremains services that deposited vials of human ashes in your church. You might take offense.

But the moon is more than your neighborhood place of worship. It belongs to no one and, though the Outer Space Treaty does not outright ban depositing cremains, an international conversation about respect for and stewardship of the moon has been underway at least since water ice was discovered in the dark craters of the lunar south pole.

A dismissive attitude about a culture — or a nation’s — concerns does not bode well for crafting careful, considerate presence on the moon. Speaking of dismissive, Celestis CEO Charles Chafer had this to say in January: “Honestly, while we respect everyone’s beliefs, we do not find [the Diné] concerns to be compelling.” Not with his bottom-line in mind, certainly. One wonders what the 30-plus international signatories to NASA’s Artemis Accords think of the cremains issue.

I can’t speak to the latest Diné perspectives because the Navajo Nation did not answer my requests. When asked for comment, NASA did not respond either.

But Alvin Harvey, a Diné aerospace doctoral student at MIT, wrote the following in a 2024 issue of Nature: “Weaving together Indigenous and Western science could help in resolving issues and lead to the production of policies and innovative approaches that protect and celebrate our shared Moon. After all, don’t we all want to be good relatives?”

Which brings me to the practical reason why banning cremains on the moon matters: Because indigenous people have a lot more to offer NASA — and the living human future in space — than the CEO of Celestis. Remember, two of NASA’s astronauts come from Native communities. There should be more.

While finishing my new natural history of the moon last year, I spoke with Harvey about these concerns. Here’s part of what he told me: “I feel there’s also an understanding that our people, especially our young people, indigenous people I’ve had the honor to serve or be around — they love NASA. They love space. They love the idea of being able to dream and travel there. I think that’s such an inherent thing to us because, well, the cosmos, the stars, the moon, is something that connects all of us, especially indigenous people. And those are our ancestors…our grandmothers and grandfathers, and I think we want to visit them too. You want to see your grandma; you want to see grandpa.” There’s a caveat, however. “When you go to your grandparents’ house, you don’t want to tear-ass through there.”

The moral status of other worlds is not only a topic for philosophers and policy-makers. It’s a question for all of us to consider.

How do you define respect for the moon? How do we not tear-ass on the moon? Consider: that companion world has given Earth an axial tilt that makes the seasons possible. It gives us tides — and early tidal mixing may have been critical in the development of life. The moon prompted prehistoric peoples to develop complex time-keeping. And the moon — viewed by Galileo in his telescope — sparked the scientific revolution.

I’m not a spiritual person. In fact, I’m a hard materialist. I think that the moon doesn’t care. But we should care about how we behave there. And that means knowing our history with the moon.

Finally, there is a cautionary reason to ban cremains — because of what might follow. 

If we can send dead people to the moon in little capsules, why not create a lunar graveyard? A lunar mausoleum? If we can do so without consulting with all the stakeholders who care about these issues, then why not just do whatever we want up there? After all, what is the threshold for inappropriate private activity on the moon? What about advertising on the moon that’s visible from the Earth? What about photographs of digital billboards on the moon? What about scattering products from Goop on Mare Imbrium as a marketing event?

Congress has taken steps, with the able leadership of the group For All Moonkind, to guide us away from disturbing the cultural heritage sites on the moon, including especially the Apollo landing sites. No one argues that they should be exploited.

But what if I decided to project corporate logos and slogans on the side of Apollo spacecraft? It’s not a permanent alteration, after all. Who’s to stop me? Maybe Celestis and I can advertise its lunar death capsules on the side of Apollo 11’s descent module. Why not?

Where does it stop?

Look, it’s not a huge lift to ban cremains, as well as any corporate logos and slogans on the moon that are visible from beyond a few yards, not to mention deliberate scattering of material on the moon.

The payloads sent by American landers, via CLPS or completely privately, should be scientific in nature or passively artistic, like the Moonark project that also didn’t make it to the moon on that Peregrine lander. Moonark was a celebration of humanistic and diverse perspectives, of critical thinking and of nature itself. It was the antithesis of the Celestis payload, with its bits of the privileged dead.

If Celestis and other such companies want to send cremains into orbit or deep space, that’s their prerogative. But the moon is not a graveyard, and neither lost socks nor souls go there either.

Christopher Cokinos is a poet and science writer who has contributed to The American Scholar, Astronomy, the Los Angeles Times, Sky & Telescope, Discover.com, and more. His new book, Still As Bright: An Illuminating History of the Moon from Antiquity to Tomorrow, is an immersive cultural and scientific history of the moon. He observes the moon with a 10-inch reflector from his home in Utah.

Jamie Roberts

By Jamie Roberts

Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist with a focus on uncovering corruption and advocating for social justice. With over a decade of experience in the field, Jamie's work has been instrumental in bringing about positive change in various communities.

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2 thoughts on “Putting cremains on the moon is disrespectful – and bad policy”
  1. Isn’t it concerning that these companies are planning to send cremains to the moon without widespread consultation or consideration for the cultural and spiritual significance of such actions?

  2. While the idea of sending cremains to the moon may seem poetic to some, it is crucial to consider the cultural and spiritual significance of such actions. The moon holds special meaning for many cultures, and we must respect that. This is not just about personal choices; it’s a matter of collective responsibility towards a shared celestial body.

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