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Send your ashes into orbit for a funeral in space

Services such as Celestis and Aura Flights send remains to the skies in an epic final journey.

Even in the freezing cold, Steven Schnider would often drag his wife Christine outside to look up at the night sky. He'd point out everything from planets to comets to satellites he'd tracked down using an app called Heavens Above.

"He'd say, 'Do you see it?' It's right there. And it would be the faintest little piece of light going across the sky," Christine recalls. "He was just so excited about it."

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When Steven was close to death in 2017, there was a consensus among family members that a space burial would be the best way to send him off. Their daughter took out her phone, did a quick search and pulled up a company called Celestis.

Last June, a portion of Steven's ashes -- along with cremated remains from over 150 other Celestis clients -- were flown into Earth's orbit aboard SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, which launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Another portion of his ashes will fly aboard the Luna 02 mission, which is slated for takeoff in 2022.

"He'd be so excited that he was in space," Christine says. 

Steven's family is among a growing number of people looking to space as a final resting place. Companies like Celestis offer a range of experiences, from an Earth Rise service that takes someone's ashes into space and brings them back, to Earth orbit and deep space options. Prices run from around $2,500 to $12,500. (The average cost of a funeral in the US, by comparison, is around $9,000.) The service has attracted high-profile clients including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and astronaut Gordon Cooper. Other companies such as Aura Flights and Elysium Space offer similar services.  

Space memorials are becoming increasingly popular thanks to growing cremation rates and a declining emphasis on cultural and religious traditions, says Celestis co-founder and CEO Charles Chafer, who started the company in 1994.

"The notion of, 'Bury me next to my grandfather in the family plot in a church' doesn't work in a mobile society," Chafer says. "People look for alternatives."

A celestial celebration

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Ashes sent as part of Celestis's orbital service fly as what's called a "secondary payload," meaning they're sent on spacecraft from commercial providers headed into space for other purposes. The payload is small enough that it burns up entirely when re-entering the Earth at the end of its orbital lifetime, which ranges from a few months to a few hundred years. That's important in keeping with the company's commitment not to add to space junk, Chafer says. 

Celestis has had 16 launches so far from locations including Cape Canaveral, the Marshall Islands and the Canary Islands. Five launches are scheduled to take place over the next two years. 

"The pace is accelerating as the trends are accelerating," Chafer says. 

To prepare for a launch, technicians glue small capsules filled with ashes into a metal sleeve. They then bolt that sleeve to a launch vehicle or satellite. The company asks clients to send at least twice as many ashes needed to fly, in case there's a failure (and there have been a few). If Celestis doesn't need to refly participants, it scatters the backup ashes near the launch site. 

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Celestis provides a real-time tracker so relatives can see the location of their loved ones above. It's a tool Joe Rust often uses to follow his brother Alex, who died in 2013 and whose ashes also launched aboard the Falcon Heavy. A few weeks ago, Alex was flying over Australia. Joe took a screenshot, sent it to his brother who lives there and told him to "look up."

Alex's request to be sent into space didn't come as a shock, given the way he lived his life. In 2008, he quit his job at The Chicago Board of Trade and moved to Florida. He swapped his minivan for a sailboat from Craigslist and headed for the Bahamas, then sailed around the world for the next four years. He later traveled to India, where he contracted typhoid fever and died at age 29.

Alex had initially wanted their brother, an engineer, to build a rocket that would send his ashes into space. Given that wasn't possible, Joe looked into other options and came across Celestis. 

"He'd made what we thought was somewhat of a ridiculous request," Joe recalls. "The idea of him passing away wasn't something we wanted to think about or even thought was possible. He lived this really adventurous life, always on the edge, so we thought Alex was pretty invincible."

Dozens of Alex's relatives and friends attended the rocket launch last summer, along with fans who had never met him but were inspired by his adventures. 

"In good Alex fashion, we made a party out of it," Joe says.

Always around

Space fans also have the option to be scattered above the Earth through a company called Aura. Gas balloons are used to carry ashes more than 30 kilometers above the Earth's surface, into a region called near space. A scatter vessel containing the cremains opens, and they gently cascade toward Earth. Cameras capture footage of the release for loved ones to keep. 

The ashes are carried around the world on stratospheric winds and join with the planet's atmosphere over weeks and months before eventually becoming raindrops and snowflakes. The company has launched more than 500 near space flights since 2016.

Chris Rose, Aura's co-director, says this memorial option removes the stress of having to find one ideal location to scatter a loved one's remains. "You're scattered across the world," he says.

The process isn't disruptive to the environment, Rose adds. After the ashes are released, the balloon continues to rise and expand due to pressure change. It eventually bursts and drops the gear it's carrying, including computer equipment for tracking and monitoring the flight, back to Earth using a parachute system. The Aura team recovers all equipment after using computer simulations and weather data to predict the flight path. 

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Rose says the ashes released into the Earth's atmosphere are sterile and "symbolic of a human body at that point." 

Rafal Zebrala used Aura's services to fulfill the wishes of his partner, Marek Moch, who died in January following a battle with cancer. 

In early March, nearly a dozen close family members and friends headed to a launch site outside Sheffield, England. They shared memories and raised a glass of champagne before Moch was released into the sky.

"On the one hand it was a hard time, but on the other it was a very calm, emotional and even relaxing ceremony," Zebrala says. "[Marek] dreamed of becoming a pilot, and now he's up there. I can always speak to him by raising my head up."

Christine, the Celestis customer, also appreciates not having to drive to a cemetery to feel connected to her husband. Instead, she can just look to the skies.

"It feels like he's always around."

This story is part of CNET's The Future of Funerals series. Stay tuned this week for more.