Why human remains land on the moon poses difficult questions for members of various religions

Sending human remains to the moon with 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 occupies a sacred place” in Navajo and other tribal traditions and should not be defiled in this way. The inside of the lander would be a kind of ‘space funeral’ for the remains of about seventy people. Each of the families had paid more than $12,000 for a permanent memorial on 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 millennia of tradition and practice. Although these ash did not reach the moon due to a propellant leak, their presence on the lander has raised a number of important religious issues: beliefs about the polluting nature of the corpse, the acceptability of cremation, and the sanctity of the moon vary by tradition. .

Jewish death rituals and purification

In ancient Judaism, certain activities were believed to be polluting, rendering one unfit to participate in prayers and animal sacrifices offered exclusively in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were many ways in which a person could become ritually impure, and each level of pollution was purified by an appropriate purification ritual. Direct contact with a human corpse was believed to cause the most intense form of pollution; even touching a person or object that had been in contact with a corpse would cause a lesser degree of contamination.

After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, Jewish religious practice changed dramatically, including rules about purification. Today, many Jewish people wash their hands after a funeral or visit to a cemetery to wash away negative spirits or energy.

In Judaism, the bodies of the dead must be buried or buried in the earth. The cremation of human bodies, rejected for centuries, has become more popular but still remains a controversial option due to the older tradition of respecting the body as a creation of God – to be buried intact and without mutilation.

Christian death rituals through the ages

Before Christianity developed 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 cemeteries outside towns and villages – in the necropolis, literally a city of the dead. As in Judaism, every visitor needed purification afterward.

As monotheists, Christians rejected belief in the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, including the moon goddess called Selene or Luna. They also refused to participate in religious rituals or activities of the Roman state that were based on pagan polytheism. Decades later, after Christianity became the official imperial religion, Christians moved the remains of people they considered holy to towns and cities for reburial so that they could be more easily venerated in churches.

During the Middle Ages, ordinary Christians wished to be buried near these saints, awaiting 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 deceased could continue to benefit from the saints’ holiness. Their bodies were considered sources of spiritual blessing rather than causes of spiritual pollution.

A relief showing a corpse placed in a coffin while people stand around it, someone holding a tall crucifix.

Today, cremation is increasingly considered acceptable, although the Catholic Church requires that cremated remains should not be scattered or divided, but buried or placed elsewhere in cemeteries.

Unlike some other religions, neither Judaism nor Christianity considers the moon to be divine or sacred. As part of God’s creation, it plays a role in establishing the religious calendars. In both Jewish and Christian spiritual writings, the moon is used as a spiritual analogy: in Judaism of the majesty of God, and in Christianity of Christ and the Church.

Islamic beliefs about burial

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

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

The Quran warns against worshiping the moon, as was done in pre-Islamic culture, because worship belongs only to God.

In September 2007, as Malaysia’s first Muslim astronaut prepared to go into space, the Malaysian National Space Agency published religious guidelines on burial rituals for Muslims in space. These guidelines said that if returning the body was not possible, he would be “buried” in space after a short ceremony. And if water was not available in space for the ceremonial rituals, then “sacred dust” would have to be wiped over the face and hands “even if there is no dust” on the space station.

Hindu and Buddhist burial practices

Hinduism is a diverse religion, and therefore burial practices often vary depending on culture and context. Most often, death and the period after death of a person are associated with ritual pollution. Therefore, the deceased must be cremated within 24 hours of death.

The cremation of the corpse breaks the bonds of the soul, or atman, with the body, allowing it to pass to the next plane of existence and ultimately reincarnate. The ashes are collected on the third day after cremation and placed in an urn and immersed in a body of water, ideally a sacred river such as the Ganges.

Within Hinduism, the moon has played an important role in conceptualizing what happens to the dead. For example, ancient Hindu texts describe the spirits of the virtuous dead entering Chandraloka, or the realm of the moon, where they experience happiness for a while before being reincarnated.

In the many forms of Buddhism, death offers mourners the opportunity to reflect on the impermanence of all things. While in Tibetan Buddhism there is the tradition of ‘heaven burial’, in which the deceased is dismembered and left to the elements, in most forms of Buddhism the dead are usually cremated and, as in Hinduism, it is considered polluting in advance.

A person lighting a candle at an altar painted in red color, with white flowers in two vases and incense sticks in a small pot.A person lighting a candle at an altar painted in red color, 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 believed to be identified with the chariot-riding god Chandra. The moon is also one of the nine astrological deities whose movement provides insight into the calculation of the individual and collective future.

Difficult questions

In response to Navajo objections that landing ash on the moon was a pollution, the CEO of Celestis, the company that paid for capsules containing the ash, released a statement emphasizing that launching containers of human ash to the moon “is the antithesis of desecration.” … it’s a party.”

Ultimately the question remained unanswered. Peregrine 1 never made a soft landing on the moon due to an engine failure, and its payload was destroyed after entering the atmosphere.

As more people decide to send their ashes into space, religious conflicts will undoubtedly arise. The main concern, and not just for the Navajo Nation, will be how to respect all religious traditions as humans explore and commercialize the moon. It still remains a problem here on earth today.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand 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, 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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