Why human remains are landing on the Moon is raising difficult questions for members of some religions

The sending of human remains to the Moon on the first commercial lunar lander, Peregrine 1, on January 8, 2024, along with scientific instruments, caused controversy.

Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, objected, saying that “the moon has a sacred place” in Navajo and other tribal traditions and should not be polluted in this way. The interior of the lander was to be a kind of “space burial” for the remains of about 70 people. Each family had paid over US$12,000 for a permanent souvenir of the Moon.

As professors of religious studies who have taught courses on death rituals, we know that death rituals in the world’s religions have been shaped by thousands of years of tradition and practice. Although these ashes did not reach the Moon due to a propellant leak, their presence on the lander raised several important religious questions: Beliefs about the corrupt nature of the cauldron, the acceptability of cremation and the sacredness of the Moon vary across traditions. .

Jewish death and purification rites

In ancient Judaism, certain activities were believed to be corrupt, rendering one unfit to participate in prayers and animal sacrifices offered exclusively at the Temple in Jerusalem. There were many ways in which a person could become ritually impure, and all levels of pollution were cleansed with an appropriate rite of purification. Direct contact with a human body was believed to cause the most severe form of pollution; even touching a person or something that was in contact with a body would result in a lesser degree of pollution.

After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, Jewish religious practice changed dramatically, including rules regarding purification. These days, after a burial or a visit to a cemetery, many Jews wash their hands to wash away spirits or negative energy.

In Judaism, the bodies of the dead are to be buried or buried in the earth. Cremation of human bodies, rejected for centuries, is increasingly popular, but remains a controversial choice because of the old tradition of respecting the body as God’s creation – burying it intact and unmutilated.

Christian death rituals over the centuries

Before the development of Christianity in the first century CE, Roman civil religion emphasized the need to separate the living from the dead. Corpses or cremated remains were buried in burial places outside cities and towns – in the necropolis, literally the city of the dead. As in Judaism, any visitor required purification afterwards.

As monotheists, Christians rejected belief in the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome, including the Moon goddess known as Selene or Luna. They also refused to participate in the religious rituals of the Roman state or in activities based on pagan polytheism. Twenty years later, after Christianity became the official imperial religion, Christians moved the remains of people they considered holy into towns and cities to be reburied for easier veneration within churches.

During the middle ages, ordinary Christians wished to be buried next to these saints in anticipation of the resurrection of the body at the second coming of Christ. Cemeteries around the church were consecrated as “holy ground”. In this way, Christians believed that the departed could continue to benefit from the sanctity of the saints. Their bodies were considered sources of spiritual blessing rather than causes of spiritual corruption.

Relief showing a body being placed in a coffin with people standing around, one of them on a high cross.

Cremation is considered more acceptable today, although the Catholic Church requires that cremated remains not be scattered or separated but buried or placed elsewhere in cemeteries.

Unlike other religions, neither Judaism nor Christianity consider the Moon divine or sacred. As part of God’s creation, it plays a role in the setting of religious calendars. In both Jewish and Christian spiritual writing, the Moon is used as a spiritual analogy: in Judaism, of God’s majesty, and in Christianity, of Christ and the church.

Islamic belief on burial

Cremation is strictly prohibited in Islam. After death, the deceased is ritually washed, wrapped in shrouds and taken to burial in a cemetery as soon as possible.

After a funeral prayer, led by an imam or senior member of the community, the deceased is buried – usually without a coffin – with his head pointed towards the holy city of Mecca. It is said that the soul of the deceased visits their loved ones on the seventh and 40th day after death.

The Quran warns against worshiping the Moon, as was done in pre-Islamic culture, because worship is due to God alone.

In September 2007, when the first Malaysian Muslim astronaut was set to go into space, the Malaysian National Space Agency published religious guidelines for burial rites for Muslims in space. These instructions stated that if the body could not be returned, it would be “buried” in space after a short ceremony. And if there was no water available in space for the ceremonial rites, “holy dust” should be brushed on the face and hands “even if there is no dust” in the space station.

Hindu and Buddhist funeral practices

Hinduism is a diverse religion, so funeral practices often vary according to culture and context. Death and the period after a person’s death are commonly associated with ritual pollution. Because of this, the deceased should be cremated within 24 hours of death.

Cremation of the cauldron loosens the soul’s, or atman’s, ties to the body, allowing it to move on to the next level of existence and eventually re-implantation. The ashes are collected and placed in an urn on the third day after cremation and immersed in a body of water, ideally a holy river such as the Ganges.

Within Hinduism, the Moon played an important role in conceptualizing what happens to the dead. For example, the ancient Hindu texts describe the spirits of the enlightened dead entering Chandraloka, or the realm of the moon, where they experience bliss for a time before being reborn.

In the many forms of Buddhism, death provides an opportunity for mourners to reflect on the impermanence of all things. Although Tibetan Buddhism has the tradition of “sky burial,” where the deceased is decompressed and left to the elements, in most forms of Buddhism the dead are usually cremated and, as in Hinduism, it is considered the body is polluted beforehand.

A person lighting a candle at an altar, painted in red, with white flowers in two vases and incense sticks in a small pot.A person lighting a candle at an altar, painted in red, with white flowers in two vases and incense sticks in a small pot.

In older forms of Buddhism in Nepal and Tibet, the Moon was understood to be identified with the chariot-riding god Chandra. The Moon is one of the nine astrological deities whose movement provides insight into individual and collective futures.

Difficult questions

In response to the Navajo protest that landing ashes on the Moon was pollution, the CEO of Celestis, the company that paid for the capsules containing the ashes, issued a statement stressing that “the antithesis of the destruction of the destruction of sending containers of human ashes to the Moon. … it’s a celebration.”

In the end, the question was moot. Peregrine 1 never made its soft landing on the Moon due to an engine malfunction, and its payload was destroyed after entering the atmosphere.

As more people decide to send their ashes into space, however, religious conflicts are bound to arise. The main concern, and not just for the Navajo Nation, is how to respect all religious traditions while people explore and commercialize the Moon. It is still a problem today here on Earth.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you reliable facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Joanne M. Pierce, College of the Holy Cross and Mathew Schmalz, College of the Holy Cross

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The authors do not work for, consult with, or own shares in, or receive funding from, any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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