Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
We know that space travel is dangerous. You can die all the normal ways, and there will be an amazing number of new ones, as well. Whether you’re living in a space habitat, the Moon or a brand new world, the question of how to deal with the dead will inevitably arise.
Disposal Out the Airlock
Science fiction regularly features the threat of throwing someone out the airlock to a terrible death. It is also presented as a way of disposing of bodies quickly. In reality, this is bad almost everywhere. If you’re in orbit around Earth, you just introduced a moderately large piece of space junk that you had control over. On a space ship traveling at a fraction of the speed of light, it may create a navigational hazard for anyone who may follow you.
Space burials best exemplified by Spock’s example in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” will be reserved for the elite or they will never happen at all. Launching spacecraft requires energy in addition to the materials to build it. If you have a human-sized craft, you’ll send a valuable passenger or a similar volume of valuable trade goods before you crash it into the nearest planet or send it into the Sun. Then there’s the waste of resources that many space-dwellers need like water and salt. No, they won’t be throwing bodies – dead or alive – out the airlock.
Composting of human bodies promises to be an eco-friendly burial solution. On Earth, we have plenty of locations where we can do this safely. In space, it may not be so safe. For example, the dissolution of a body to goo and burying it in a garden on Earth doesn’t create the risk that you’ll be exposed to their gut bacteria the next time you go walking through the only local green area. Composting bodies could introduce mutated pathogens or simple prions to the food production system, since you’re likely growing crops in one or two rotations of the soil. This makes composting very unlikely on space stations and enclosed ecosystems.
You probably wouldn’t want to bury composted human bodies off-world, either. All the bacteria and fungi on and in our bodies would escape into the local ecosystem. We’ll set aside the risk that you’ve completely destroyed the local ecosystem without sufficiently building up the replacement, rendering the new world uninhabitable. Instead, the greater risk to humans is that one of those trillions of human-compatible pathogens mutates on exposure to the local ecosystem, maybe even swapping genes, and becomes a threat to colonists.
This makes burying a human body without completely sterilizing it too dangerous to consider in most cases.
If you’re on an alien world, locking the body away in a coffin and burying it in a tomb wastes time and resources. If you’re on the Moon, it could be a cheap way to store bodies before you send them to Earth or cremate them. In an airless environment like the Moon, internment is practical since you have so much free space. On a space station, it is unlikely due to space constraints, pun intended.
This method of disposing of the dead is increasingly popular in the West. The cost of funeral plots is rising. With weakened family ties and some seeing history itself as oppressive, there is less interest in burying the body of a loved one where it could be visited by grandchildren. The solution for many is cremation. This is also an excellent solution for those living off-world.
If you’re on a space station, cremation sterilizes the body. The ash could be set aside in urns, mixed in concrete to build protective structures for the colony, or recycled in potting soil. If you’re on the Moon or another airless body, cremation minimizes the disease risk dead bodies pose while you don’t have to travel so far to inter the ashes if so desired. And you’re just as free to mix them in the soil of your memorial garden.
The colony can harvest the water from the body and recycle that precious resource. A majority of the ashes could be recycled, too. A small fraction of the ash volume could be dedicated however the family wants. Whether the cremains are stored in a memorial urn or turned into an artificial diamond depends on what is available, as well as personal preferences. Scattering the ashes in the local garden doesn’t pose the health hazard that composted human bodies would.
If you live on an alien world with its own ecosystem, cremation sterilizes the remains of a human body. You could have a cemetery filled with cremains, each one buried in its own spot and marked for future retrieval or visitation. Yet there is no risk that the mild virus that killed one settler mutates into the next pandemic.
This is why I think burials taking place anywhere off world will take the form of cremations. All the alternatives are too dangerous to the living.
© 2019 Tamara Wilhite
The Logician from then to now on on May 02, 2019:
Your cremation theory seems to be right on. Did you know NASA is currently developing a technique to safely and legally dispose of dead bodies in space. The Body Back plan involves placing the corpse in an airtight container and exposing it to subzero temperatures outside the ship so that it freezes.
After the body is frozen, a robotic arm will rapidly vibrate the corpse for 15 minutes. This is essentially the outer space equivalent of a cremation. By the end of the process, the body will have been turned into a fine powder.
The dehydrated remains are then stored in a container, much like an urn, and attached to the outside of the spacecraft. They will safely remain there until the ship returns to Earth.