There are two ways to contemplate the question Where do we go when we die? One is philosophical, ultimately unanswerable; the other is logistical. Humans, being human, have tended to see them as being intertwined: The many traditions we’ve devised for handling our remains are meant to honor the selves that left those bodies behind.
The seven people pictured here have chosen to send their ashes, or in some cases a sample of their DNA, into outer space. They have contracted with Celestis, one of a handful of companies offering such services. Celestis has launched 17 of these so-called memorial spaceflights since 1994. Some will rocket straight up and descend, some will orbit Earth, some will be sent to the surface of the moon and some will simply hurtle into space and keep on going. (Celestis sends its cargo on spacecraft undertaking unrelated scientific and commercial missions. Packages start at around $2,500.)
The people shown here settled on their final wishes for different reasons: spiritual, pragmatic, romantic. Many consider it the culmination of a lifelong fascination with space exploration, the impulse to look up with wonder. For some, a space burial signals acceptance of the idea that, in the end, there may be only a void awaiting us. For others, a space burial acts in defiance of that idea.
In an era when the sway of religion over many of our lives has weakened, when cultural traditions blend and collide, when many people are less likely to stick close to the places where they were raised and when landscapes are remade rapidly — so that a loved one may wind up buried thousands of miles away from the family and friends who miss them, and perhaps even, over time, in a wonkily shaped remnant of green space between an office park and a Costco — it’s understandable that the question of where, and in what form, we should remain for eternity is swinging wide open. Even the sky isn’t the limit anymore.
Lemuel Patterson, 71
They called it “The Can Do Project” because everyone kept telling them they couldn’t do it. The whole thing seemed so unlikely, in fact, that almost four decades later, Lemuel Patterson is slightly fuzzy on how precisely it came about — why, of all the school districts in America, NASA decided to work with his kids, in his K-12 science classes at an ordinary public school in Charleston, S.C., to photograph Earth from space.
Four cameras, housed in a canister, were affixed to the bay door of the space shuttle. Each could be triggered to shoot a sequence of 250 pictures. For several days in June of 1993, Patterson’s students monitored the shuttle’s orbital path and consulted satellite weather data to gauge where they would get the clearest views, then sent wish lists of photographic targets to the shuttle’s crew. In the end, the mission yielded hundreds of pictures — many of them breathtaking. Patterson had always been enraptured by space and space science. He wrung as much joy from the project as any of his students. “We got a centerfold in National Geographic!” he says. “August 1994.”
As Patterson moved to other teaching positions and later worked at the state level to bolster science education in some of South Carolina’s struggling schools, he tried whenever possible to coordinate similar real-life space experiments with his students through the project’s partners at NASA and the Medical University of South Carolina. Typically, he and his students would pack little payloads of different materials onto the space shuttle to see how they fared. Improbably, this became a big part of Patterson’s life, a phenomenal part of his life: sending stuff into space. And when his life is over, he has arranged to send himself.
Now, after 41 years in education, Patterson has been eager to spend as much of his retirement as possible traveling the world. One highlight, he says, was visiting the Betsiboka River in Madagascar. The river’s massive estuary, which gushes muddy water into Bombetoka Bay, appears, from far overhead, as a snarled, oblong, rust-red smear. Standing alongside it, Patterson says, he could see in his mind’s eye the photograph of it that his students shot.
Kathleen Mansfield, 70
“Star Trek” had its premiere on television in 1966, when Kathleen Mansfield was 13. She and her mother were instantly enthralled. They made a ritual of watching together during the week, while Kathleen’s three brothers were otherwise occupied and her father was on the road.
Her father was a salesman. He was also abusive, an alcoholic. “When he was gone, my house was peaceful,” she says. The Starship Enterprise — in addition to all its flashy, futuristic technology — was peaceful, too: an environment of sleek, clean lines. “It was very orderly and logical,” she says, “and I’m a total, total logical thinker — which can be a problem, sometimes, if you don’t have any gray. But I thought the way they thought.”
Her family spent every summer in Ontario’s cottage country, northeast of her home in Toronto, and at night, she would go out on the lake in a little boat and stare straight up. The whole sky was flecked with light. Mansfield understood that’s where adventures happened. All the hypercompetence and courageous exploration of the unknown that drew her to “Star Trek” might be going on up there — or might one day.
It’s not that her whole life has been geared around science fiction or space. She loves the water just as much, loves to water ski and swim. She plays the saxophone. She has raised three kids. And she worked for 32 years as a pharmacist. She always understood her job as a public service, a privilege, and she took particular pride in entering the profession at a time when it was one of the few scientific fields in which women were as prominent as men.
But as she got older, she began to contemplate her death — not in a dramatic way, just as one does. And the prospect of being deposited in dirt was deeply unappealing: “I can’t even tell you why. I think I’m afraid of the dark.” Sending your ashes and DNA into deep space involves a tremendous amount of darkness, too, Mansfield concedes. But, she says: “I love new things. I love trying new things. To me, it doesn’t really feel like an end.”
Guy Pignolet, 81
Guy Pignolet spent the first phase of his adult life looking down, deep into the earth. During the 1960s, he worked in oil exploration in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In Indonesia, he contracted an extremely high fever. He saw a tunnel, terminating in a bright light, and a voice asked, “Would you like to come now, or are there things that you would like to do?” Pignolet said he wasn’t ready. His fever went away.
The life Pignolet returned to tumbled along and changed. On a trip to visit family in California, he took a detour to attend a conference on space exploration in Huntsville, Ala. He had studied some astrophysics while working toward an unrelated Ph.D. at Cornell. (The astronomy department, where Carl Sagan taught, was practically next door to the business school.) But in Huntsville, something clicked; he suddenly understood the vacuum of space as a tactile reality. He had engineered his oil-well machinery to be as heavy as possible, to bore two kilometers down. The space people were making things as light as possible, to be blasted upward. But, he says, “the basic science was the same.”
After that, he recalls, he tried to become France’s first astronaut, came in 20th out of 800 and was given a job at the French space agency instead. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a grandfather of astronautics, once wrote, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” This made sense to Pignolet. He understood himself to be a “citizen of the solar system” and didn’t want to end up underground, farther inside the planet, when he died. It seemed like the wrong direction to go. Just before heart surgery, in 2003, he decided to have his ashes sent into orbit, where they would stay for some number of years, then return as a shooting star.
Jeffrey Woytach, 62
They were paperbacks, with small dimensions, printed in black and white — a whole series of books, about a boy and his dog exploring the moon. Jeffrey Woytach can’t remember their author or titles — he has searched and searched online — but to a first grader, their allure was profound, almost strangely gravitational.
Woytach’s infatuation with space started there: in the school library, in the late 1960s, just as the Apollo missions were landing real-life humans on the moon. “My teachers knew that if there was a lunar EVA” — extravehicular activity — “on television during the day, I probably wasn’t going to be in school,” he says. After college, he went to work for NASA, and he has worked out of the same facility in Cleveland for 40 years — avidly switching roles, amassing a résumé that’s 16 pages long. “I classify myself as a space cadet,” he says. “That’s always been me. That’s been my core.”
In this sense, his life has felt like a straight line. For him, what comes after is similarly straightforward. “We all become pictures in a book, or on a wall, or a name on a headstone that no one remembers anymore,” he says. Woytach understands that this slow erasure is likely to overtake his own memory, too, and it’s a modest consolation that, as it does, some part of him — some small portion of his ashes — will stay perched on the moon. “I tell my daughter and my wife, Just keep the rest of me away from the vacuum cleaner, and that’ll be fine.”
Maribel Gray, 52
Maribel Gray lost her aunt, father and mother to cancer in the course of a single, painful decade. In each case, it fell to her to oversee the funeral arrangements. As these things go, the jobs were simple: All three had purchased burial plots next to her grandmother. One by one, those spaces were filled.
During this same period, however, a close friend of Gray’s named Rebekka Thomas died as well, and Gray was determined to fulfill her final wishes too. This project proved to be more complicated — too ambitious at the time, in fact. “She wanted to be blown up as a firework — don’t ask me why.”
Gray is a graphic designer who has worked on space-themed postage stamps for the United States Postal Service. (Though Gray’s childhood fascination with space and science fiction waned in adulthood, these projects were a special thrill.) She turned to art and design after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her 30s. Before that, she was an E.R. doctor and was pursuing a career in public health in the developing world. She entered medical school a Catholic, but, she says: “I would see so much suffering, and it all seemed pointless. Even what happened to my friend Rebekka — her death was very pointless. She was so young.” As Gray’s faith weakened, she turned to other public-health workers and priests. “Nobody ever gave me a satisfactory answer.”
Gray is single. She does not have children. Even if she wanted to be buried with her parents, there are no more open neighboring plots. But she came across an intriguing option while investigating the feasibility of the exploding-firework scheme. Untethered from tradition, from any definitive physical resting place, she felt that launching her ashes into deep space made sense. “I’m interested in looking into the unknown, going into the unknown,” she says. “This is another adventure.”
Kenneth Ohm, 86
When Ken Ohm, a professor of physics, thinks about his body, he is cognizant of both its rewards and its limitations. It has been an exceptionally athletic body: It allowed him to make beautiful memories playing baseball and to compete as a javelin thrower until age 82. On the other hand, no matter how persistently he worked at realizing his dream of becoming an astronaut in the 1960s, NASA kept saying no, in part because his body, which measured 6 feet 2 inches, was simply too tall. “I did everything I was supposed to, except shrink,” Ohm says.
One day, Ohm’s body will be cremated, and his ashes — which he feels little attachment to — will be buried in a family plot in his ancestral town, Bazaar, Kan. (“Spelled like a shopping bazaar, though my wife and others think it could easily be the other kind of bizarre.”) Something far more impressive and valuable to him than his body, however, his DNA, will be resting near the southern pole of the moon. And so, every month, when the moon is full, it’s possible that one of his descendants might look up and see the very spot, and maybe, Ohm explains, even pause long enough to think, “Old Ken has his DNA up there,” before carrying on with the day.
That would be nice. But Ohm’s real reason for sending his DNA to the moon is practical: in case, 30,000 or 40,000 years from now, some remnant of this civilization or another civilization altogether discovers his genetic blueprints and — what, exactly? Anything, really! But if they’re sophisticated enough to find his DNA and utilize it, Ohm presumes it would be for something extremely cool. That said, he has also considered the prospect of an intergalactic zoo with a Ken Ohm in a cage, or — much more frightening, particularly for his wife, he jokes — a swarm of thousands of reconstituted Ken Ohms spreading across the universe. “I’m living with the uncertainty,” he says.
Daniel Conlisk, 76
N.Y.F.D. Battalion Chief
When they meet at a gig his band plays in Queens, he is smitten but shy. Soon after, he is drafted. Fifteen months in Vietnam. “And I said to myself, If I can survive this, I’m going to call that girl.” While they’re crossing a busy street on their first date, Kathleen reaches for Daniel’s hand.
Fast-forward through 49 years of marriage and seven kids — through a beautiful life preserved in hundreds of photographs where, almost invariably, Dan and Kathy are holding hands. Fast-forward,too, through years of Kathy’s recurring, worsening cancer, and Dan, a New York Fire Department battalion chief, stopping at church on his way home from the station to pray his wife gets another few years.
Now it’s March 2020. Kathy is mostly healthy, but the world is unwell. With Covid flaring, they drink wine on their stoop in Queens, looking at the stars. And suddenly, Kathy is sick again. She is moved among overloaded hospitals, which Dan isn’t permitted to visit, and finally into rehab, where she catches Covid herself. Dan shows up to extract her. “She’s my wife,” he says. “I’m taking her out of there!” He sets her up in their basement. He won’t leave her side for longer than 90 minutes for the next year and a half.
More suffering, more treatments, but mostly it’s the two of them in the basement, day after day. They cuddle and watch “Independence Day” and documentaries about U.F.O.s. Sitting on the stoop together again, they lament the light pollution that separates them from the stars. “I said, ‘When you get better, I’m going to take you to some mountaintop where they’ve got plenty of stars, and we’re going to lay down a blanket and look up.’” And as the end gets closer, he says: “ ‘What do you want to do when you die?’ And her exact words were, ‘I want to be cremated, and when you die, I want you to be cremated, and I want our ashes mixed together and sent into space.’”
A romantic idea. But who had actually heard of such a thing? Not him. Not her.
“I said, ‘Kath, I’m going to look and see what I can do.’”
Dina Litovsky is a Ukrainian-born photographer living in New York. Her work specializes in subcultures, and in 2020 she won the Nannen Prize, one of Germany’s foremost awards for documentary photography. Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of three books: “Wild Ones,” “This is Chance!” and “Serious Face.”