‘He will always be stardust’: New Zealanders find connection with space burials

Memorial spaceflights offer people in New Zealand a new way to say goodbye, sending tokens holding their ashes into orbit

On 19 January, Keryn Townsley will be hoping for a clear night sky. Her family will gather at their home in Wellington, New Zealand, to watch a live stream of a rocket launching in the US – a tradition they have observed many times in the past. But this time will be different. On board the rocket will be a small inscribed metal token holding a portion of ashes belonging to 14-year-old Remy – Townsley’s rocket-loving son – who died suddenly in 2020.

His ashes will orbit Earth for up to 10 years, before crashing back through the atmosphere and burning up. “He will always be stardust up there and that has meaning for us,” Townsley says, of choosing to memorialise her son in what is known as a “space burial”.

The idea is not a new one. The first launch of human remains into orbit was in 1992, when a Nasa space shuttle carried Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s ashes. Since then, a number of companies have sprung up to offer memorial spaceflights – including one for pets – but it is the first time a service has been offered in New Zealand, through a New Zealand-owned company, StardustMe.

“I get that it wouldn’t be appropriate for some people and some might even think it sounds gimmicky,” Townsley says. “But we’re very plain, straight-talking folk and for us it wasn’t. When you lose someone, you have to find that connection for you and your family.”

Townsley saw a story about StardustMe pop up on social media in November, with its plans to launch its inaugural memorial flight on 19 January, and felt “a real connection with the idea”.

Her son’s interest in rockets was partly ignited by his uncle – Townsley’s brother – who lives in the US. During a family trip in 2015, the family watched a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from the Kennedy Space Centre.

“Remy was blown away by the scale and the size of the rockets and he came home with a deep and passionate interest in how rockets work.” Townsley says. “During a school programme – aged 9 or 10 – he developed a rocket propulsion system.

“He sold some of his toys and bought a model rocket … When he turned 13, he joined the air cadets in Lower Hutt because he wanted to learn to fly.”

Remy managed to take a couple of flights before he died in 2020. After his death, the family faced the difficulty of trying to find an interment option that felt appropriate for his age and his interests.

“We as a family look at the stars anyway when we think about Remy, but [the space burial] adds an extra element. It seemed that that’s where he would want to be rather than stuck in the ground.”

When Remy died there were still strict Covid restrictions on attendance numbers for funerals in New Zealand, Townsley says. She adds that with this memorial option, family members in Scotland and the US, and those who were not able to attend the funeral, will feel included.

“It is a really challenging time after losing your child, but this year we wanted to do something that we felt was positive. I’ll be hoping for clear skies,” she says.

StardustMe was thought up by longtime friends Stu Potter and Geoff Lamb one night when they were on a family holiday on New Zealand’s east coast – the home of the country’s emerging space sector.

Stu Potter (left) and Geoff Lamb.
Stu Potter (left) and Geoff Lamb. Photograph: StardustMe

Sitting under a glittering night sky, Potter, a business consultant, and Lamb, who has a background in space engineering, started discussing how they could use the wasted space on rockets and how they could “close that gap between us as people on Earth and what’s going on around heads above us in space”, Potter says.

When the pair embarked on their idea, they hadn’t realised that other services existed elsewhere. “We thought we could do it better, cheaper and with more care to what is important to us, more sustainably,” Lamb adds.

It is also the first Māori-owned space company in the world. Potter, who is of Ngāti Awa descent, says the night sky plays an important role for Māori, including the belief that the souls of the dead are released into the sky at Matariki, to become stars.

Tikanga (customary practices) for burial can differ from iwi (tribe) to iwi, but cremation – which is relatively uncommon among Māori – can raise questions. Potter says the company has considered questions of tikanga and has taken advice from kaumatua (elders), but that ultimately, the company has “offered families the opportunity to choose”. Potter also notes that a family’s tikanga wishes are upheld by the funeral directors who help the company establish a plan for each memorial.

Lamb adds that the funeral directors set the company apart from other providers. “We don’t want it to be too tacky or Disneyland – it’s got to be done with the right care and respect,” Lamb says.

Two of the company’s primary goals are to keep the service sustainable, which included not leaving anything behind in space and using rockets that were already scheduled to blast off, and making it affordable, Potter says. “We’ve worked hard to try to bring it down to NZ$3,000, or US$1,500, which is affordable for a lot more people.” By comparison, the US company Celestis Memorial Spaceflights’ services cost US$2,495- $12,500.

StardustMe has paired with an Italian company that almost exclusively uses SpaceX rockets, due to their availability and affordability, Lamb says.

The company launched the service in mid-November, and sold out the five spots on the inaugural flight within days. It is now taking inquiries for a second flight in May, with a view to sending more tokens into space.

“It’s been very emotional working with those families,” Potter says. “I knew there was a need out there, but I didn’t know there was such a big need.”

Karol Klimek, who died in 2017.
Karol Klimek, who died in 2017. Photograph: Kristof Klimek

For Kristof Klimek from Auckland, a space burial seemed like the perfect way to commemorate his father, Karol, who died in 2017, and was “enthusiastic and passionate about life and stardust.

“Which is why I was so determined to be a part of this mission – to return some of him back into stardust, with the hopes that some of his atoms will be spread far and wide.”

Klimek says his father was a “legend in his own right”. The gemologist and jewellery maker had been connected to a different kind of star-power – his clients ranged from Elton John and Rod Stewart to the Sultan of Brunei.

Klimek was drawn to the idea that the family could track his father’s movement across the sky via an app, and when the satellite re-enters the atmosphere.

“I never imagined in my life I would say: ‘I’m sending my dad into space,’” Klimek says. “I personally have more of a connection with facts than faith. So, for me, to truly know he’s up there ‘looking down on me’ is priceless.”


Eva Corlett in Wellington

The GuardianTramp

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