Salon Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Timothy Leary is dead and well and blasting through outer space.

Published April 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Timothy Leary's cremains have boldly gone where no man has ever gone before.

Early yesterday morning, a winged Pegasus XL solid-fuel rocket hitching a ride on the underbelly of a Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet ignited at 39,000 feet above Spain's Gando Air Force Base on the Canary Islands and delivered a MINISAT research satellite owned by the Spanish government into orbit 300 miles above Earth.

On the way the Pegasus also sloughed off a canister owned by Houston-based Celestis Inc. containing "the individually encapsulated cremated remains" of 24 former human beings. Seven grams of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry were strapped in this 9-by-12-inch mausoleum. Another lipstick-sized aluminum capsule was reserved for a quarter ounce of Leary.

After learning he had terminal prostate cancer, the LSD guru had vowed to "give death a better name or die trying." Would he commit "directed de-animation" live on the Web? Or have his head cut off and frozen? No and no. He died in his sleep and was privately cremated -- a rather conventional coda from a man who had excoriated traditional modes for much of his life.

America's first modern cremation took place in a cigar box of a building in Washington, Pa., in 1876. The star of that day, who according to a prescient New York Times reporter was destined to be "principally famous as a corpse," was a would-be baron from Bavaria with more bluster than means. For roughly the next century, cremation was reserved for theosophists, socialists and other crackpots.

But in the last two decades cremation has boomed, and not just among Timothy Leary types. According to Jack Springer, president of the Cremation Association of North America, the national cremation rate is now 21 percent.

Along with the boom in cremation has come a bewildering array of choices. Independent Urn Sales of Holly Hill, Fla., offers a "Star of David" urn for Jews, "Calvary" for Christians (in a "Crucifix" version for sick souls and "Risen Christ" for the healthy-minded), "Pink Triangle" urns for gays and the unadorned and oddly titled "Cube Large" (for overweight cheapskates?). You can display an urn on your mantel, tuck it in a columbarium niche or squirrel it away alongside savings bonds in a safe deposit box. Or you can skip the urn altogether and scatter the ashes on the warning track at Shea Stadium or Candlestick Park -- assuming you don't get caught. "Cremation Keepsake Pendants" are available from any self-respecting death-care provider.

In a college course I teach, called "Death and Immortality," students often fantasize about going out with a bang: incineration on an open pyre in Washington Square in Greenwich Village, or a post-cremation bash complete with acid jazz and hemp brownies sprinkled with ashes. Hiring the Neptune Society to scatter your ashes at sea just isn't hip anymore.

But shooting your remains into space -- now that's style, especially if, as Celestis president Chan Tysor promises, you are guaranteed after a few years to keel back toward Earth and burn up "like a shooting star." (Your space burial, the Celestis Web site promises, will not leave behind any unsightly "orbital debris." What could be hipper than a green reincineration?)

The "Celestis Earthview Commemorative Spaceflight Service" does not come cheap. Rocketing in an environmentally friendly manner to the front lines of our "spacefaring civilization" will set you or your heirs back $4,800. A 10 percent discount is available for members of the Celestis Associates Program (cost: $35 a year; students: $25). If the launch, as my students say, "pulls a Challenger," Celestis will either refund your money or collect another seven grams of your loved one's ashes and try real hard to be more careful next time.

Leary appears to have escaped such humiliation. His seven grams of pulverized bone, mixed with trace elements of C20H25N3O, are now safely in orbit, passing over your head and mine roughly every 90 minutes. In a few years, they will tilt back to earth, accelerating, burning, burning, burning out, surfing a hissing wave of smoke and light, vaporizing in the black, empty silence of space. "I'll be a space pioneer," Leary told longtime friend Carol Rosin after viewing the Celestis video puff piece that sold him on space burial two days before he died. "I will be the light."

Like Do and his Heaven's Gate followers, Leary -- the man who wrote the ad copy for both the '60s ("turn on, tune in, and drop out") and the '90s ("to immortalize, digitize!") -- dreamed a quintessentially American dream: to light out for new territories, using the powers of spirit, mind and controlled substances to, in his words, "form higher units in neurological (and physical) Outer Space." But he knew better than to trust his scheduled ascension to a UFO and the clockwork of comets. Instead, he waited for death to come to him, then put his trust in the thrust of a Pegasus rocket. If the Heaven's Gaters were, as I've heard it said, "killed by kitsch," Leary was memorialized by it, presumably with the requisite ironic wink.

Yes, the Celestis service is a crass, commercial venture, and Leary is now its pitch man. But give the guy credit. At the end of the millennium, Leary is out in front once again, reminding us this time of fallen Viking warriors launched into the sea on ships of fire, riding light into darkness, challenging everyone over 30 to live recklessly and then to die without shame.

By Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero teaches in the religion department at Boston University. He is the author of "The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott" (Indiana University Press).

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