When it comes to honoring our departed loved ones by doing something creative with their cremated remains, there are dozens of unique options -- from using the ashes to nourish a tree to turning them into vinyl records or having them become part of a coral reef.
Now, a company called Mesoloft has provided yet another striking possibility for those who've chosen to get cremated -- a release of the ashes from about 17 miles (90,000 feet, 27,432 meters) in the air, in a part of our stratosphere known as near space. According to Mesoloft co-founder Chris Winfield, at that altitude, it's quite likely the ashes would circumnavigate the globe before being returned to Earth in the form of rain or snow.
"We know that the ashes will likely travel for months and possibly years as they get carried by the currents in the upper atmosphere," Winfield told me. "The ashes will eventually descend and settle all around the globe. Moisture adheres to ashes that pass through clouds and the ash will form the nucleus of a raindrop or snowflake. I love the story, it's so poetic!"
Winfield says his company was, in part, inspired by the way volcanic ash and dust from the Sahara desert travels the globe. In fact, Mesoloft has an in-depth science page that examines the phenomenon of upper-atmosphere dust travel in great detail.
So how exactly does the high-altitude ash-dispersion system work?
The ashes are placed in a special container that has a trap door. The container is attached to a weather balloon and a frame holding two GoPro cameras. The weather balloon caries the ashes into the stratosphere and they are released via a GPS trigger.
Through a special website, real-time GPS data of the ascent is provided to the family of the person whose ashes are making the journey. The family is also given a video of the flight.
"We also offer a service that allows us to meet the family at a location of their choice," Winfield told CNET. "We envision a celebratory event that culminates with the launch. For example, we have one family asking for a campfire party the evening before, with everyone sitting around telling stories, and the next morning we launch the balloon. They also want to help recover it on their mountain bikes."
Though it just opened for business, Mesoloft has already sent skyward the ashes of husband and wife John and Lois Lafferty commingled in the same urn. A short profile of their lives and a video (see below) of the scattering of their ashes is preserved on the Mesoloft blog -- another service the company offers as part of its package.
Mesoloft says scattering ashes in near space is a completely sanitary process. "In 1997 the EPA determined that aerial ash scattering was safe and has no significant effect on the environment," the website states. "Since cremation occurs at a very high temperature, the resulting purified ashes are sterile and quite safe."
The company does have to make sure to abide by FAA regulations.
"FAA regulations prohibit launching in the immediate area of an airport," Winfield told CNET. "There are also regulations governing the design of the system as well as the mass and density of the payloads. For each flight we issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to the FAA that contains launch location, time and predicted direction of travel."
While a company called The Eternal Ascent Society will send your ashes to a height of about 5 miles in a helium balloon, and Celestis will rocket your remains ( ) into orbit or onto the surface of the moon, Mesoloft is the first one I've heard of that offers the chance to have your ashes scattered in near space. Services begin at $2,800 (about £1,738, AU$3,196) for departures from Mesoloft's most common launch sites in southern New Mexico, eastern Indiana and eastern Colorado. The company also offers "destination packages" starting at $7,500 that combine launches with customized ceremonies at other locations.