Human Burial Ceremonies Are Now Rocket Science

Elysium shoots your loved ones' ashes into outer space.

(Courtesy of Patrick Whitehill)

There’s a brick building just off 10th and Mission streets. The windows are old, and there’s a Vespa store on the ground floor. Inside, Thomas Civiet puts his more than 10 years’ experience into Elysium Space, a company that offers a celestial repose for the deceased, launching their ashes into orbit or onto the surface of the moon.

“I’m a former engineer,” the French-born 41-year-old says. He’s worked with NASA, the ESA, Hubble, James Webb Space Telescope — the list goes on. “So I knew about the technological achievements that you could do, but there was something that people weren’t really using about the beauty of space. … People are using the launch industry to launch scientific satellites or communication satellites, this kind of thing.”

Civiet founded Elysium Space in 2013, to connect the public to the beauty of space. “We know how to do satellites,” he says. “But, we also know how to reach the public. Connecting these two walls that are extremely different — that’s really part of the challenge. … We have to be the bridge between the rocket people and the families.”

Elysium offers two services: the Shooting Star memorial, and the Lunar Surface memorial. For $2,490, Shooting Star launches a small collection of ashes into orbit aboard a satellite, while for $9,950, Lunar Surface carries them all the way to the Earth’s pockmarked natural satellite.

“From the first day I started Elysium Space,” Civiet says, “I thought that the moon could create the quintessential commemoration. Before founding Elysium Space, I read Hikaru Suzuki’s book [The Price Of Death] about the funeral industry in contemporary Japan.

“Her book mentions a prominent funeral company founder who wishes that humankind will look up at the moon and poetically commune with its ancestors in the future,” he adds. “So the lunar memorial service is part of our mission and is very important to us.”

Hikaru Suzuki, an anthropologist, is now an advisor for Elysium.

Currently, there is only one lunar memorial. The renowned planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker had some of his ashes carried to the moon via NASA’s Lunar Prospector space probe in 1999. His capsule, wrapped in brass foil, holds images of the comet Hale-Bopp’s meteor crater in northern Arizona, and bit of Shakespeare: “And, when he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night / And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

Elysium has partnered with space-technology company Astrobotic for the first publicly available lunar memorial service, and expects to launch by 2019. For now, its bread-and-butter is the Shooting Star memorial. This fall, SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 rocket into orbit, and Civiet already has the ashes of 150 people slotted as cargo. Reservations are still open.

“It’s very expensive to launch a satellite,” Civiet says. “So rather than asking for like a million dollars from people, we prefer to make it affordable by having a small capsule, like a half an inch by half an inch, so it contains about a gram of ashes.”

This gram of ashes is delivered via a futuristic-looking cube and a small scoop that gets sent to the bereaved. A “symbolic portion” is placed in the cube, and returned to Elysium.

The experience does not end there, however. Elysium offers an app that allows loved ones to track and follow where the satellite is among the stars. If the night is clear enough, one could see the satellite pass overhead. Civiet says the app tracks its trajectory as a way to “make the connective experience easier for the families.”

One gram may seem small, but any more could shift the emotional weight of the memorial. “If [loved ones] were to launch everything into orbit, that would be quite different,” Civiet says. “The way it’s done now, it’s like an add-on. You have the regular memorial service, you can keep the ashes in a columbarium, you can keep the ashes at home in an urn. But on top of this, they can also take a little portion of this and launch it into orbit.”

Fewer ashes may mean more options, but it’s also a helpful contingency plan when the risks include losing everything. Rocket launches are unpredictable, after all. In 2015, Elysium had a payload onboard the Super Strypi, which took off smoothly from a platform in Hawaii, and launched into the atmosphere for almost a full minute until it began to wobble. Soon, it began to spin uncontrollably. Or, as the official report on Elysium’s website notes, “Satellite did not reach planned orbit.”

“As per our agreement in such a case,” Civiet says of the failed launch, “we just do it again. We ask the families to send over another capsule that we place in the next satellite.”

The small quantity of ashes allows this. Any more could be financially devastating and, in the event of a launch failure, emotionally catastrophic.

Putting everything into orbit would be foolish anyways — shooting star isn’t just a marketing phrase.

“It depends on the altitude,” says Civiet. “Like, for the next launch, we know it’s going to be 500 kilometers. So, the satellite will orbit the earth for a couple of years.

“Eventually, like any other satellite, because of the atmospheric drag, it’ll burn up while reentering the earth’s atmosphere,” he says, “which will blaze as a shooting star in the sky and physically disappear.”

Check out more stories about what happens to San Franciscans when they die:

Gardens of the Dead
A field between a Best Buy and Home Depot in Colma hides thousands of unmarked graves.

A Grave Undertaking
Moving 150,000 graves from San Francisco to Colma in the early 1900s was a dirty job, but the political fights were even dirtier.

Ashes to Ashes
Cremation is on the rise as local prices for funerals and graves skyrocket.

View Comments