Staked out in a tiny Opryland convention hall booth, Charles Chafer lives in a different world than that of his peers within the National Funeral Directors Association. Gathered for their annual convention, held this year in Nashville, most of them are hawking plus-sized coffins and dust-proof cremation systems. Meanwhile, the red-haired Chafer is there to promote his business whose mission is this: launching the remains of dead people to outer space. Who knew morbidity could be so cool?
"Baby boomers want to do things differently, and the cremation rate is increasing," he says, explaining the unusual premise of his business. "When you think about how popular scattering ashes has become, we're doing the same thingonly we're sending them to space."
It's your last chance to be one with the universe. Here's how it all works: for $5,300, Chafer will place seven grams of your ashes into a lipstick-sized canister and attach it to a private rocket already scheduled to launch a satellite into space. The remains of as many as 100, um, passengers, will board a typical flight. There's a group memorial service at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for the families. Then, after you've been adequately eulogized, it's time for lift-off.
In fact, you'll end up in the same orbit as the satellite, circling around the earth in the journey of an afterlife-time. Meanwhile, your loved ones can log onto Spaceservicesinc.com and see exactly where over the earth's orbit you are. After 10 to 280 years, all depending on the satellite, you'll make one last return flight, reentering the atmosphere like a shooting star and burning up all over again. If only frequent flier mileage were transferable.
The co-founder of the Texas-based Space Services Inc., Chafer organized his first memorial launch in 1997, where a rocket took the remains of 24 people into space. Among the star-crossed crew were Timothy Leary, the famous 1960s psychologist, philosopher and space guru andthis is perfectGene Roddenberry, the founder of Star Trek. Since then, Space Services has launched four flights, sending well over 100 people into orbit. During the last launch, though, in September 2001, the rocket crashed into the Indian Ocean, taking the remains of 50 people with it. After a three-year lull brought about in part by the aftermath of 9/11, the company has three flights scheduled for 2005.
"We tell people space travel is not routine and there's a chance the mission won't succeed," Chafer says in the convention hall, as a singer a few booths away for some reason performs "Nobody Does It Better." "We ask them to give us twice as many ashes as we need and, if we have to, we'll fly them again at no cost to them."
After majoring in foreign policy and political science at Georgetown University, Chafer slipped into the rocket business by chance when he met David Hannah Jr., who financed the first private launch off Matagorda Island in 1992. Since then, he's been hooked on space travel and believes that widespread space exploration will happen sooner than people might think.
"I think as a human race we need to explore more of space," he says. "The oceans in their day were riskier than space is now."
Chafer's rockets have launched the remains of all sorts of people, from scientists to truck drivers to disabled children. Sometimes, people ask him if he could expand his services. "Occasionally, we'll get a request to fly a body into space," he says. "Then we'll tell them that will be $6 million, and nobody calls us back."
This is Chafer's first visit to the funeral directors' convention. The boyish-looking 51-year-old hopes to break into the traditional funeral business, although he might as well be in another universe. In fact, he may be the most normal person to attend this massive convention. A few aisles away from Chafer, a half-a-dozen singers perform on a shiny, white stage belting out the Elton John standard "Circle of Life." One of the female singers is inexplicably wearing an apron, while one of the male singers is dressed as a doctor. There's no rhyme or reason for this selection of costumes, the choice of music or the ring of coffins that ominously surround the stage. Then, in mid-song, one of the younger, more nattily attired singers enters into a spoken-word sermon over the pre-recorded music about how "the circle of life moves us in very different ways." Somehow, some way, this young philosopher broaches the seemingly unrelated subject of how two-thirds of all Americans are overweight. The song is over, but the man is still talking. "Today's American people need larger caskets," he informs us. Fortunately, the Dimension Line of Caskets by Batesville can meet those special needs.
Meanwhile, a short walk from the stage, there's a booth that appears to be marketing coffins for infants. Taste and subtlety aren't this industry's strong suits.
Chafer is a refreshing sideline amid this rather hoary spectacle. It's not that this isn't a business to him; in fact, he's quick to say that he's doubled his revenue for each of his memorial flights. But for him, this is also a way to help people realize a childhood dreameven if they're not alive to enjoy it.
"At the memorial service, you have all these families in some stage of grief," he says. "But you can't help but see that rocket launch without feeling amazed. There will be applause and there will be high fives. It's a mixture of sadness and elation, and it can help bring about emotional closure."
Eric Miller, an electrical engineer in California, will have his father's ashes aboard an upcoming Space Services flight this January. As his father, Charles Miller, was dying, the son told him about rocketing his ashes through space, and his father instantly took to the idea. Like many people who choose this type of memorial, Charles Miller had a taste for adventure. A onetime master sergeant in the Air Force before becoming an artist, Miller already has his ashes scattered in the Nile River, Ganges River and, not by design, the Indian Ocean. The remains of Charles Miller were aboard the rocket that crashed. This is a repeat journey.
"He's getting spread a little thin," Miller jokes.
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