Burial of the human dead in outer space, approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation two months ago, has not yet rocketed to success in eschatologically conservative Baltimore, but at least two funeral directors are hoping the idea will catch on soon.
"It's like the steamboat," Philip E. Cvach, owner of Cvach Funeral Homes, said with a philosophical smile. "When they first invented it, no one wanted to get on. But a lot of people are on steamboats today."
"Lots of people want to be the first to do things," said Irvin Carroll, owner of the Irvin Carroll Funeral Home. "I've already had some . . . serious inquiries."
Cvach (pronounced Sa-vak) and Carroll signed up recently as agents for the Celestis Group, a Florida-based consortium of undertakers and engineers who won the government's approval to launch a rocket into orbit in 1987 with the specially cremated remains of up to 10,330 earthlings.
Minimum price: $3,900 a customer above and beyond regular funeral and cremation expenses. That fee goes to Celestis with the local funeral director receiving a 10 percent commission.
Cvach and Carroll are the only Maryland undertakers so far to sign on as agents seeking customers for Celestis, although Celestis officials say others have expressed interest.
"I'm interested to see where the idea goes," said Cvach, a portly and amiable man whose family has been in the undertaking business since 1879 and who said Marylanders tend to be "traditionalist . . . with a set view about these things."
He said he has had no takers since he became a Celestis agent two weeks ago. "A lot of people have jokingly talked to me about it," he said, "and one or two have talked to me seriously."
He said he expects to obtain customers after he begins advertising the Celestis service in local newspapers. Celestis itself has circulated a promotional pamphlet depicting planets and stars and bearing the message: "The ultimate undisturbed rest for the honored dead . . . in Space."
There's one problem in Maryland, Cvach says. Only a small percentage of those who die here are cremated, a prerequisite for space burial.
Nevertheless, he said, "I'm offering a service . . . . It's an option . . . . Of course, it's a business venture, too, no doubt about that."
The way it works is this: If you prefer space to earth or sea, Cvach, acting as middleman, will draw a contract to have your cremated remains -- "cremains," as they say in the trade -- shipped to the Celestis complex in Melbourne, Fla. There, the ashes are further reduced by a special high temperature gasification process to a tiny residue of powdery dust weighing less than an ounce.
Next, the remains are placed in a personalized lipstick-sized capsule -- your choice of gold, silver or platinum -- and loaded with other capsules in the nose cone of a four-stage, solid-fuel Conestoga II rocket for launch into orbit 1,900 nautical miles from Earth.
The nose cone is expected to stay in orbit at least 63 million years, according to Celestis officials. If that isn't enough, future launches are planned to put the rocket beyond the Earth's gravitational pull and eject the capsules into deep space "forever, I guess," said Celestis vice president James Kuhl. A deep-space shot will cost you $4,600.
The first launch, scheduled for early 1987 from Wallops Island, Va., will be staged for Celestis by the Houston-based Space Services, Inc., a private commercial rocket company headed by former astronaut Donald (Deke) Slayton.
Although no customers have signed up yet, Kuhl said in a telephone interview, he expects to fill the rocket nose cone with 10,000 or more capsules by 1987.
"There's almost 300,000 cremations annually in the United States, and it's increasing," he said. "I figure there's a viable market out there."
Cvach, 57, asked if he was going to buy a spot on the Celestis rocket, shook his head. "No, I'm a traditionalist," he said. "I want a viewing, a casket and then a burial in the family plot." CAPTION: Picture, Funeral home owner Philip E. Cvach: "When they first invented [the steamboat], no one wanted to get on." By Joe Giza for The Washington Post