Freeman Brothers has been established as a funeral director in West Sussex since 1855 and its teams in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint aim to give each bereaved customer a sensitive, yet professional service, tailored to their specific requirements. Part of this is the accommodation of different people’s religious and cultural practices, as well as their own preferences and family traditions. A key part of our work is exploring ways to fulfil these requirements. What we believe about death- and what happens after it- is something that funeral services staff are always considering. Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, here discusses an episode of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ which examines these themes.
Like other series within the Star Trek universe, ‘Voyager’ centres on the exploits of the multi-species crew of a starship, travelling through the galaxy. Most episodes feature contact with a previously-unknown species. In episode eight of season one, ‘Emanations’, the crew encounters a civilisation called the Vhnori, and accidentally challenges their ideas about the afterlife (or ‘Next Emanation’, hence the episode’s title).
While exploring an asteroid, Voyager’s ‘away team’ finds several deceased aliens. This leads to the first interesting conversation of the episode, where the characters discuss the ethics of disturbing these bodies, or even exploring round them. Commander Chakotay, leading the team, advocates leaving the bodies ‘in peace’. Ensign Kim, can only see the ‘anthropological opportunity’ for scientific discovery. On Voyager, Captain Janeway agrees with Chakotay’s desire to ‘respect’ the dead bodies and agrees that the team should make visual observations only. This frustrates the third team member, Torres, who was excited by the potential uses of the heavy metal elements that the asteroid seemed to contain.
Chakotay argues that the wrapping of the bodies and positioning of their limbs shows evidence of rituals, and argues that this is evidence of a belief in the afterlife. However, Torres (who is half Klingon) contradicts this by arguing that even species without rituals might believe in an afterlife- such as Klingons. This has obvious resonance for me in my work as a Funeral Director, where in some cases we would facilitate rituals deemed necessary for the deceased person to proceed to the next stage of life, while some other people we would meet would consider the funeral to be not important in this respect, and others might not have a belief in an afterlife but still have necessary traditions.
The action moves forwards when the cave is disrupted and the team is beamed away. Distortions in the process lead to Chakotay and Torres returning to Voyager with a ‘new’ body, while Kim finds himself transported into a pod where that body had been only moments before.
Voyager’s crew decided resuscitates the ‘new’ body, and she transpires to be a Vhnori called Ptera, who was expecting to wake up in the Next Emanation afterlife having been terminally ill with a brain tumour, which has now been cured. She was looking forward to reuniting with her brother, and to a world full of ‘colours and lights that she would see with new eyes and a new understanding’. Kes, an Ocampan member of the crew, discusses her own beliefs about the afterlife and the release of a ‘Comra’- a soul or spirit- upon death. However, Ptera’s beliefs centre on a corporeal afterlife, and the idea of ending up as a ‘lifeless corpse’ horrifies her. This is a topic which I know many people wrestle with when considering what they think happens after they die- finding the idea that ‘this is all there is’ to be difficult.
Kim is in a similar situation, having woken up on the Vhnori homeworld inside the ceremonial pod vacated by Ptera. The Vhnori believe he has returned from the afterlife and he causes similar consternation when he describes dead bodies instead of the Next Emanation that they expect him to have experienced. While his situation is being investigated, he encounters Hatil, who has agreed to go to the Next Emanation as his physical condition causes a burden on his family. This is a clear analogy for assisted suicide/euthanasia, a topical subject in America at the time the series was made.
This episode of Voyager was originally screened in March 1995. In the mid-1990s, there was a significant ‘right to die’ debate in America. Oregon would be the first state where the right to assisted dying was enshrined in law, two years later, and Dr Jack Kevorkian had been tried (and acquitted) for assisting a suicide only the year before. In America today, 10 states have some form of legal ‘right to die’ and any US citizen can travel to Oregon for this to happen.
Americans’ support for euthanasia has not substantially altered since the mid-1990s, at around 70%, according to Gallup– in spite of the fact it is now legal in some places. It’s a generally-recognised feature of research into assisted dying that support decreases when respondents believe the choice to die is not being made by an individual, or when that individual is making a decision due to feeling burdensome. Hatil has told Kim that the decision was made ‘at a family meeting’- and the audience has previously seen that his wife’s enthusiasm for him to ‘move on’ is greater than his. When he asserts that he is giving nothing back to his family and it’s better that he ‘moves on’, Kim is ‘appalled’. It could be argued that Kim is here representing the typical American, whose broad support for the general idea reduces once the choice of the individual seems to be eroded.
Kim’s information about the deceased Vhnori unsettles Hatil, who is apparently unsure whether he really wants to die. Voyager is trying- and failing- to swap Ptera and Harry (killing her in the process), but happily, these doubts of Hatil’s enable the plot to be resolved. The necessity for the Vhnori to wrap themselves head to toe before they enter the pod which sends them onwards means that Harry is able to disguise himself as Hatil, while Hatil escapes to die in the natural course of time. Harry is pinning his hopes on Voyager being able to locate him as soon as he reaches the cavern, and resuscitate him even if he dies in the process- and this is what duly occurs.
The episode ends with Captain Janeway encouraging Harry to take some extra time off work- even though he has physically recovered- to ‘reflect’, and ‘absorb’ what has happened to him. She claims his experience transcends the everyday and he needs to live with it for a while. Again, this echoes with my own experiences in that people do often need time and space to come to terms with someone’s death- of course, it’s not usually their own, as it is with Kim’s.
Harry says he has been preoccupied, specifically because of the incorrectness of the Vhnori’s beliefs- that they don’t have the afterlife they think they do. Janeway says that, although she is not certain, the ship’s scans seem to suggest that the natural energy a Vhnori releases when they die become part of the planet’s atmosphere, while remaining individual presences.
It’s interesting to note that the Vhnori’s idea of an afterlife (‘moving on’) is analogous with religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. What Janeway believes happens is more akin to Christian ideas of a soul- or the Ocampan beliefs which Kes mentioned earlier in the episode. Kim is pleased at the idea of the Vhnori having an afterlife after all- perhaps he is again representing the American public (the majority of which is Christian) in finding this a comforting idea- even though both Ptera and Hatil found it unpalatable at best and far inferior to their corporeal Next Emanation. A valid (albeit uncharitable) interpretation of this might be that ‘Voyager’ is trying to present Christian beliefs as ‘correct’ and that, while other beliefs can be strongly held by others, they are ultimately invalidated by rational thought.
What struck me about this episode of ‘Voyager’ is that so many relatively complex philosophical ideas about dying and the afterlife were placed into the plot with relative ease. It’s true that the storyline resolves easily and some of the ideas are only touched upon briefly. It’s also true that the character of Harry Kim becomes an easy proxy for the likely audience, so some assumptions can be made (such as the concept of a soul being a comforting one, even if the soul belongs to someone who doesn’t believe in it). However, that these issues are included in the story at all was interesting to me, and I think is reflective of wider debates that were happening in American society at the time. For all the story’s simplicity, it does convey that there is a wide scope of beliefs in these areas and that they cannot be black and white. The episode concludes with Janeway telling Harry that ‘what we don’t know about death is far, far greater than what we do know’- and on this, I definitely agree.