Punctuation for the dead

August 4, 2008

Some news stories I can’t get out of my head. They keep reverberating with questions.

Take the post-mortem wishes of two men, one an astronaut wanting to return to space, the other an actor astronaut wanting to go there for the first time.

Gordon Cooper, who orbited the Earth alone twenty-two times in 1963 aboard a Mercury capsule, is probably lesser known than James Doohan, who portrayed the much-imitated Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in the original Star Trek series. Twice their cremated remains have been aboard privately owned rockets that failed to reach orbit. They simply haven’t reached where they wanted to end up.

On its surface, the story evokes sympathy: last wishes unfulfilled, loved ones subjected not just to loss but the emotional final farewell that isn’t final at all. “I’d like to finish saying goodbye,” writes Ehrich Blackhound, one of Doohan’s seven children, in a post to BoingBoing. Every launch attempt “is like reliving his funeral.”

At a deeper level, the story triggers obvious questions for anyone thinking beyond the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction factor. Why do we care what happens to what’s left behind? Does it really matter a whit where our remains end up? Is this merely a symbolic gesture, a ritualistic punctuation mark meant to signify who we were or wanted to be? Or how we want to be remembered? Do we know whether our wishes are fulfilled or not? Do we care? Is the end the end or the beginning of the beginning?

Cooper and Doohan weren’t alone. The remains of two hundred and six others were aboard. The company providing the service encouraged families to set aside some remains in case of rocket failure, the New York Times reports.

If Gordo, Scotty, and the others finally make it next time, we won’t be any closer to answers. But their parting gesture won’t end in a plume of ironic futility. It will end with an exclamation mark emblazoned on the heavens.