For the record, I detest almost everything about the Guardians of the Galaxy films apart from Groot, Yondu, the occasional joke, and the density of cameos. With the lame attempt at a nostalgic soundtrack, the ridiculous plot, hilariously bad conception of planets and alien species, and the daddy-issue focus, there’s little to like about them, least of which is their own conviction as to their coolness. However, I was delighted to see the second film – which I only watched because I couldn’t sleep due to illness – contains yet another interesting portrayal of death in space!
The background: there is a long tradition in sci-fi movies of jettisoning shrouded and encoffined bodies into space as a strategy of corpse disposal: an adaption of the real-world and literary burial-at-sea funerals, themselves in turn adapted from land-based funerals. In real-world scenarios of the last century, ash immersion is often frequently over water too, not only drawing on Hindu traditions, but a broader spirtualist desire to suffuse the dead into ‘nature’. These themes bleed into sci-fi, and the connection to cremation is always indirect/implicit to my knowledge, since cremation services have themselves adapted funerals designed for death at sea.
The specifically naval themes are sometimes overtly played upon in sci-fi films and TV series; one can view examples in films such as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) to the war dead of Starship Troopers (1997). A recent example I’ve discussed on this blog takes place in Alien Covenant (2017). Another recent example is the tragic self-sacrifice of the cyborg Airiam in season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery. The key scene is usually a launch bay/airlock scene, with the survivors gathering ‘on the deck’ or just beyond the airlock door. There is usually a formal farewell, usually without overt ritual, but with a speech or personal reflection by lead characters. Next, the departure of the body takes place through the airlock akin to the cadaver being dropping overboard from a ship. There is no procession, no more stages to the funeral, no subsequent commemorative acts.
However, today, I watched a new riff on this theme. In line with the upbeat and (attempts at being) humorous Marvel sci-fi world, we get an interesting and different example of this tradition in a space funeral of Yondu Udonta at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017). In at least 3 key ways, it takes this space funeral in interesting directions:
- the provision of grave-goods and artefact exchange;
- use of cremation as transformation during the jettisoning of the body;
- the two-stage nature of the funeral with the ashes in space being honoured in public: space becomes a stage, not a black, empty oblivion. The funeral is, in some ways, reversed.
With a deliberate lack of formality and some attempts at humour in the eulogy by Quill (likening the deceased to David Hasselhoff), I was particularly interested that the body was laid out supine (as is usual in sci-fi funerals), feet facing the point of subsequent departure. There was no coffin or shroud, instead the body was lain in clothing and with tape over the eyes and mouth for some unknown reasons. The body is thus visible yet transformed by semi-wrapping, perhaps intended to be read as a comedic makeshift corpse preparation. After all, these provisions do at least conceal visible signs of mortality by axphyxiation and cold from exposure to space.
Also of interest was the choice to denote a series of kitsch grave-goods, making the event very much in the vein of a happy funeral. This is evidence in the choice of flowers, candles and children’s grave-goods: notably a troll toy adds to the ’70s/’80s retro theme of the film. These are placed, one-by-one, by the Guardian mourners around the body on the bier.
The next bit is interesting too. Rather than being consigned to an airlock, they seem to have rigged up some kind of crematory into which the bier is placed, immolated, and then dispersed within seconds into space.
Weirder still, the characters don’t watch the body’s dissolution, even though it is in plain sight. They turn around and swap artefacts inherited from Yondu – a kind of funerary exchange of heirlooms between Kraglin and Quill. Others have simply walked off. This reveals a concept of the burning of the body as something that should remain unobserved, even when it can be: a theme I’ve noticed in some of the Game of Thrones fantasy cremations.
Then, when the body disintegrates, the ashes float out into space but the characters don’t seem to be paying attention at all. However, a second stage to the funeral takes place that they didn’t expect.
Because Rocket has sent word out to the Ravagers that Yondu died honourably and restored his reputation, hundreds of ships turn up and honour is ashes, which miraculously retain a trajectory and form some implausible kind of celestial arrow, with a firework/weapons display. Somehow, the cremains know to stay together and serve as material presence for the Ravagers’ commemorative display.
So from private and low-key, to ludicrous pomp, the funeral of Yondu takes space-burial into the realm of cremation ceremonies, and is a rare instance that puts the ashes at the centre of the public honouring of the dead.
The funeral is particularly striking because the character himself was a bad-guy of the first film, but through his self-sacrfice, he saves his adopted son Quill, showing himself to be more of a father to him than his real father. He thus restores his reputation with, and joined the Guardians, and as Rocket sends word out to the other Ravagers, his funeral is a moment where his reputation is reconfigured and he is honoured publicly.
So what? This is just a dumb Marvel movie, right? Sure! But it’s important to remember that dispersing cremated ashes in space is a real-world phenomenon of the early 21st century, if only for the very rich. As such, these filmic representations of cremation as a noble yet happy disposal method in the cosmos are more than abstract ideas, they are rooted in our present-day reflections on mortality and, together, they constitute a genre of imagined futuristic funerals. Some solemn, some upbeat, they share a sense of restoration and rehabilation through death, drawing on historic naval death rituals and affording a mass audience through global film releases, that will subconsciously be guiding our current and future deathways.
This film ends with Rocket – a character defined by his terse and dispassionate demeanour – looking out at the ashes of Yondu with tears welling in his raccoon eyes. In this child’s film, death in space is something all species can share an understanding in: everyone can come together to honour the dead. If relatively illiterate of ritual processes, the film brings death centre-stage and cremation concludes the narrative.