The final journey
Since Sent Into Space was founded in 2011, we’ve had more emails asking about scattering ashes in space than almost any other topic. When Chris and Alex discussed their aspirations for the business, back when they were still two guys working out of the attic in Alex’s old house, it was one of the first things to go on the agenda. When I interviewed for my job back in 2016, we spent a good twenty minutes talking about how a space scattering service would work.
In other words, it’s been on our agenda for a while.
Last year, we finally made that dream into a reality, with the launch of Ascension Flights. At the time, we talked to a lot of journalists about the service (British readers may have seen our appearance on Dragons’ Den back in August 2017, where we faced a grilling about our mental arithmetic from Peter Jones before receiving an offer from Deborah Meaden) and since then we’ve spoken to a huge number of people who heard about the service and were thrilled to find out more about what we can offer.
We’ve also talked to people across the funeral industry and representatives of many different faiths, discovering the huge variety of rituals and customs around grief, loss, and memorial. Today, I want to explain how Ascension Flights works and share some of the stories we’ve heard and lessons we’ve learned.
How we say goodbye
The rise in popularity of cremation in Western society has been recent and dramatic. Judaeo-Christian faiths have historically proscribed cremation as it prevents the promised bodily resurrection at the end of days. As secularism has risen and scarcity of burial plots has become an increasingly pressing issue, the same pattern has been seen in many European countries and in North America: seventy years ago, less than 10% of people in Britain were cremated on death while today it’s nearly 80%.
Alongside the shift towards cremation, British attitudes towards grief are changing. Many charities have sprung into existence encouraging open conversations about death and mourning, in line with a more general trend towards greater acceptance of mental health and well-being issues and the decreased stigma around emotional vulnerability, especially among men. It’s no longer shocking for a funeral to feature brightly coloured outfits, a diverse playlist, even a theme associated with the life of the deceased.
Funerals have ceased to be “one size fits all” and many find comfort in the knowledge that after they die, their life will be celebrated in a way that uniquely reflects their personality.
This has naturally led to the introduction of a huge range of alternative funeral practices and customs. You can have a ‘green funeral’, where your remains are buried in a biodegradable casket, returning to the ground with minimal disruption to the ecosystem around the burial site. A similar motivation inspired the Bio Urn, which mixes ashes with soil to provide a nutritious fertiliser for a fledgling tree, allowing you to grow a living reminder of a loved one from their remains.
Some other proposals we’ve seen for things you can do with ashes include having them fashioned into precious gemstones and turned into jewelry, mixed into clay or stained glass to make pottery or sculptures, incorporated into fireworks, form inks for tattoos, press them into a vinyl record, have them mixed into concrete and formed into an artificial reef for coral and other oceanic life… the list is always growing.
With all this in mind, why scatter in space?
Space is awesome
Awe is a rare and complex emotion, a simultaneous sense of wondrous reverence and fearful dread. The word ‘awesome’ has been diluted in meaning somewhat over the past few decades, but if its possible to sum up humankind’s feelings for space in a single word, awesome is a pretty good attempt.
It’s no coincidence that much religious imagery depicts heaven as being above us. The night sky and the planets and stars above were worshipped as deities and believed to dictate the fates of those born under their influence by early civilisations across every part of the globe.
Even before we wrote down the stories of our beliefs, they were passed down by oral tradition, told around campfires under the very same stars that hang in the inky black above us today. Those stars also played a crucial part in our first stumbling efforts to understand the world around us, pointing us North and measuring the passage of the seasons.
Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another.
In the modern age, each foray beyond the reaches of our atmosphere and every defiance of our gravitational field is a moment of triumph for scientific endeavour and the human spirit.
Equally, however, each step we take is a humbling reminder of how small a space we occupy in the grand scheme and how much room we still have to grow as a species. In the words of a great astronomer, reflecting on the iconic image of the Earth taken by Voyager 1 from over 4 billion miles away:
That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.
— Carl Sagan
It’s no wonder that for many people, having their ashes sent on a final journey into the black void of space to scatter gently back down across the whole world seems like a fitting final journey.
It’s taken us a long time to launch an ashes scattering service. Partly, that’s because we knew this would be a huge technical endeavour. We wanted the ashes to be released at a certain altitude, which required us to build a secondary GPS system and a computing module to track altitude and trigger the release mechanism once it had confirmed it was above a certain height.
With a reputation built on stunning photographs and videos of the Earth from space, it went without saying that however we conducted the scatter, it had to look good. Unlocking a hatch in the bottom of a canister and simply dropping the ashes wouldn’t deliver the kind of visual result on which we pride ourselves.
The proprietary mechanism we designed involved the ashes being poured over a cone, through a thin slit, creating a slow and steady pouring effect like sand running through an hourglass. That meant every moving part had to be sealed or protected from particulate wear and we had to research into the exact properties of human ashes, from their tendency to agglomerate and form clumps that would prevent a clean flow to the likelihood of moisture retention leading to freezing that could damage our payload.
All of these developments took time and each component and system underwent an exhaustive testing process. We knew that if we’re asking people to entrust us with the final remains of a departed loved one, any failure on any flight would be unacceptable.
The other reason that the introduction of this service has been slow, however, is simply that we aren’t funeral directors by trade. Every industry has its own way of working and requires a wealth of hard and soft skills to succeed. For that reason, we’ve spent as much time as we did building our mechanism talking to funeral directors and industry professionals. Their insight has been invaluable in helping us see how our service should work and how to provide the best service to people going through some of the most emotionally challenging times that one can experience.
Today, we’ve conducted a number of flights for customers who’ve contacted us directly, but we’ve also entered into a partnership with some of the most experienced and well-respected funeral care providers in the country. Very soon, hundreds of funeral directors across the UK will be able to offer Ascension Flights through their practices, meaning our customers can rest easy knowing that the best qualified people are carrying out their wishes every step of the way.