From Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One to Six Feet Under, capitalist Western death ways have been critiqued through the arts. Science fiction allows us to reflect on the ultimate capitalist extremes applied to death ritual and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) does this job well through the lens of an alien species: the Ferengi. These greedy traders (incorporating long-discussed and disturbing antisemitic dimensions) extend their pursuit of material wealth in their lifetimes into their spiritual and afterlife beliefs, their code of ethics and honour, their species-defined identity, and thus their perceptions and practices regarding mortality.
We first encounter the Ferengi in Star Trek: The Next Generation where vengeance in response to a death is seen as dishonourable if it counters the ability to make profit. Subsequently, the Ferengi in the Star Trek universe are shown as structuring their deaths, commemorative practices and afterlife beliefs around commodification and the continued accumulation of profit to sustain their loved ones and assist in their afterlife transition. They do this following their quasi-religious Rules of Acquisition and equate social standing in life with material acquisition. Subsequently, they aspire to enter the Divine Treasury to achieve reincarnation. If judged worthy by the Blessed Exchequer, demonstrable through their material wealth, they receive a favourable new life. Conversely, the Ferengi hell is unsurprisingly a humiliation of perpetual poverty: the ‘Eternal Pit of Destitution’.
I find it particularly revealing how the Ferengi body is transformed, partitioned as a process of commodification. The Ferengi are desiccated upon death, and their remains are given a centrally organised process of transformation into death discs, each marked with a seal of desiccation proving the identity of their owner. Each Ferengi body is partitioned into 52 collectable/saleable discs. These are small sealed plastic jars, seemingly containing the pulverised, green fragments of desiccated Ferengi bodies. Evidently, death is clearly a centralised and profitable industry for the Ferengi!
The precise production and trade in these discs is left ambiguous, but the impression is clear that latinum raised through the immediate sale of the death discs helps mediate the Fergeni’s soul on its journey to the Divine Treasury and thus favourable reincarnation as well as facilitating the potential honour and profit in death for the family and the collectors who are able to sell on the remains of prestigious Ferengi for increasing profit like valuable antiquities. Hence, the fame inherent in the acquisitions of Ferengi in life have the potential to provide further revenue after death and that their prestige and collectability is enhanced via their sale and re-sale, deathly commodified versions of prestigious antiques.
Multiple episodes explore this practice, starting with the selling of the desiccated remains of Grand Nagus Zek (S1 Ep. 11 ‘The Nagus’). There are two further dimensions of this Ferengi practice that are worthy of note.
In Deep Space Nine S2 Ep.12, ‘The Alternate’, we encounter the potential for fraud of selling on fake death discs. This is revealed when the bar-owner on Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi Quark, tries to sell the remains of a famous Ferengi: Plegg. This is foiled when it is discovered by the security chief Odo that Plegg is still alive and rather than 52 death discs, Quark has thousands of them for sale! A sense is afforded that Ferengi swindling is commonplace in relation to death rituals and discs as with their other transactions, but the funerary dimension parodies popular mockery of traditional religious practices including the cult of saint’s relics, as well as stories past and present of criminal behaviours by undertakers and other mortuary specialists exploiting the dead and mourners alike.
In this episode, Odo affords a shape-shifting perspective on the Alpha quadrant’s many ‘solids’ and their mortuary rituals:
Odo: Three strips, that’s a fair price for Plegg.
Quark: I suppose you’re interested.
Odo: Humanoid death rituals are an interest of mine.
Quark: Death rituals?!
Odo: Everyone needs a hobby. Some species burn their dead, others pack them in blocks of ice, some even surround themselves with the company of family corpse, but the Ferengi ritual of chopping up their loved ones and selling them, ha ha ha, I find that irresistible.
Quark: I’m very busy here…
Odo: What a fitting and distinguished way to honour the memory of great Ferengi entrepreneurs. I’m thinking of starting a collection, putting up a display case in my office. They’ll be a special place reserved just for you Quark.
Odo asks how he knows it is Plegg. Quark replies ‘it says so on the label’. The ‘Ferengi seal of dismemberment’ is on the disc. However, it turns out Quark is selling fake remains of Plegg who is still alive. Quark claims he bought them in good faith: he has 5,000 pieces of Plegg in his storeroom. The comedy value is that he should have readily realised that Plegg’s remains would never have populated 5,000 discs if he’d been honest…
This plays off contemporary anxieties of identification and individuality regarding the fragmentation and partition of the dead via cremation and other emergent desiccation technologies. It also reflects on the association of such technologies with commodification, something that very much reflects Western attitudes to cremation as not necessarily counter-spiritual, but certainly embedded in a sense of death as a money-making scam. One is certainly afforded the impression that death, as with life, is strictly controlled as well as fully commercialised by the Rules of Acquisition in Ferengi mercantile culture.
The death disks enter a new story when it comes to Quark’s own perceived demise. In S4 Ep. 12 ‘Body Parts’, Quark believes he’s dying having been diagnosed on Ferenginar with Dorek Syndrome. He needs to think of how he might pay off his debts. Rom suggests: ‘You could ways sell the desiccated remains of your corpse on the Ferengi Futures Exchange!’ Quark initially disagrees and puts himself down but Rom insists:
bids’ll come flooding in from every quarter of the Ferengi Alliance, everyone will want a disk of Quark on their desk. In fact, there might not be enough of you to meet the demand.
This reveals that display in a public, official workplace setting of eminent Ferengi was a further use of the death disks, akin to fine art or sculpture. He goes on:
just wait, when you see how much your body is worth, you’re gonna wish you died years ago!
Quark is thus convinced to put his own body on the exchange and initially only Rom puts in a bid for Quark’s body. Quark says he doesn’t want Rom’s charity, but Rom insists he wants something to remember him by. Hence we are revealed that sentiment and mnemonic practices are sincerely felt by Ferengi, if fully embedded in cycles of financial transactions via death disks.
The bidding continues and Quark sells his body. ‘It took me my whole life, but I’m doing to die a winner’. He then proceeds to plan his own funeral with charging for entry. So we learn that the funeral itself, not just its results, are moments of acquisition.
The spanner in the works comes when Dr Bashir receiving a message from a doctor on Ferenginar explaining that Quark doesn’t have a fatal disease after all and is going to live. Things take a turn for the worst still when the bidder and winner of Quark’s body comes forward. It turns out it is Brunt from the FCA (Ferengi’s regulatory body) who turns up to claim his merchandise – ’52 discs of desiccated Quark’ and admits to hating Quark so much, rather than make money from him, he aims to buy them and consider the many ways to desecrate them. He hates Quark, accusing him as a philanthropist making humanitarian gestures and thus not a Ferengi.
The only way he gets out is to break his contract, which no Ferengi would do without being socially exiled and bankrupt for him and his family. So we learn that pre-mortem funerary planning can go wrong, and Quark finds himself in a debt he cannot repay without killing himself! Quark decides to go through with his own death and gets Garak (the Cardassian spy turned tailor) to kill him. This self-destructive path is structured around Quark’s refusal to break the agreement, and therefore to lose face and finances at the hands of the Ferengi regulatory body: the FCA. It also relates to his species identity and afterlife opportunities. He asserts himself as a businessman and a Ferengi businessmen for which religious faith and social obligations and relationships are closely tied. Quark states:
‘and when I arrive at the gates of the Divine Treasury, the registrar will accept my bribe and usher me inside and do you know why? Because I died exactly as I lived, as Ferengi!. Garak, let’s talk about death!”
However, Quark has second thoughts. He tries to prepare to kill himself to ‘die like a Ferengi’ (in profit) but Quark is squeamish in response to all Garak’s assassination ideas. How does Quark resolve his dilemma? Well, it comes to him in the form of a dream when he believes he has died and is at the entrance to the Divine Treasury…
He refects: “It’s a dream, that’s why the place looks so tacky!” In his dream the first Grand Nagus admits that the Rules of Acquisition are simply a marketing ploy to sell books, so Quark realises he has ‘moral’ wriggle-room, and breaks his contract. Brunt confiscates every piece of Quark’s property and strips his bar, leaving him friendless and latinum-less on Deep Space Nine, humiliated but alive.
The story has a heart-warming cosy sentimental end when the inhabitants of Deep Space Nine, led by Sisko, gift Quark the alcohol and equipment to start up his bar from scratch. Rom reminds Quark that maybe his ‘friends’ are assets that he didn’t realise he has. We are left wondering whether this moral will be a lesson for Quark…
Via Ferengi death discs and these fabulously humorous story lines, we encounter a gentle critique of capitalism and the funerary industry via a fictional alien species whose life and death is structured around their quasi-religious Rules of Acquisition. Furthermore, present-day anxieties regarding the dissolution of the body and its anonymity, partitioning, display and disposal, are revealed in the Ferengi death-discs, especially stories focusing on funerary fraud and the unpredictable nature of the financial planning and social expectations required of our own funerals.