The quest for immortality has obsessed human beings for millenniums. We’ve concocted countless tales and myths about holy grails, mermaid flesh, or fountains of youth capable of bestowing everlasting life to the brave, clever or virtuous. This singular focus also appears in our religious doctrines, which seem to be devised with the sole purpose of assuaging death anxiety. This fact is reflected in the way most of our mortuary rituals involve extending our existence—in the afterlife, if not here on earth. Of course, secular society is not excluded from having lofty dreams of eternal life. In fact, a few individuals have opted to put their faith in speculative science to achieve this goal. In comes cryonics. The process involves storing a recently deceased person’s body at very low temperatures to cryopreserve them in the hopes that medical technology will one day sufficiently advance to cure their illness and reanimate them. Thus, it is a voyage beyond both death and time.
If cryonics sounds like science-fiction it may be due to the fact that it was first conceived in a short story published in a pulp magazine called Startling Stories in 1948. Written by cryonics founder Robert Ettinger, the story, called “The Penultimate Trump,” recounts the adventures of a wealthy tycoon who funds research into suspended animation. Upon his death, he is stored in a refrigerator until he is revived 300 years later in a more advanced society, where he is eventually sent to a Martian penal colony for the crime of being a capitalist fat cat (Milburn 531). Cryonics’ fictional inspiration should not be perceived as a mark against it, however, as many inventions were influenced by speculative fiction, notable cellphones, submarines, and atomic power (Strauss).
Ettinger eventually expanded on the notion of cryostasis in his self-published treatise, The Prospect of Immortality, in 1962. It included a foreword by French biologist Jean Rostand, who posited that successful cryonic suspension was perhaps not entirely impossible given the speed of techno-medical developments at the time (Milburn 532). In 1964, the book was vetted by great sci-fi writer and professor Isaac Asimov, who deemed it scientifically sound. This earned it a new printing and distribution by a major publishing company, which served to bring it to a more mainstream audience (Best 1). Ettinger himself was cryonically suspended upon his death in 2011.
In 1962, 73-year-old Professor James Bedford became the first person to be cryonically frozen. An inspection of his body in 1991 appeared to show that it was, at least externally, in relatively good condition, aside from minor fracturing (Darwin 1991). The cryonics process does not always end as successfully, however. In 1983, an examination carried out on three other cryonically frozen individuals—who were thawed out this time, unlike Professor Bedford—revealed severe fracturing and suggested possible damage at a molecular level. The bodies sustained such damage that they had to be converted to neurocryopreservation, the cryopreservation of the head only (Darwin 1984).
Since the early 2000s, cryonic technicians have added the process of vitrification to their procedure in order to prevent most of the serious damage that occurs during freezing. This requires the use of a cryoprotectant, a solution that decreases freezing temperature. It also prevents liquid in the body from crystallizing (History/Timeline).
Several cryonics facilities have risen and fallen throughout the decades, the most scandalous case being “The Chatsworth Disaster,” which resulted from the Cryonics Society of California’s failure to secure enough funds to continue cryonically suspending nine bodies in its care, ultimately leaving them to decompose in their vaults (Adams). Today, there are a total of six cryonic facilities worldwide, with over 2,000 members waiting for their turn to become a human Popsicle. All facilities except one—KrioRus in Russia—are housed in the United States. The oldest and most “populated” are Alcor and the Cryonics Institute. Each stores 148 and 145 bodies, respectively (The CI Advantage). The cost of cryonics ranges from $28,000 USD for full-body cryopreservation to $200,000 USD, although the latter excludes standby services (The CI Advantage). Neurocryopreservation can cost from $10,000 USD to $80,000 USD (Cohen 93). Membership fees are also required when you join a cryonics facility, which can set you back $120 USD to $400 USD annually. To keep costs down, most of the staff works on a volunteer basis. Very few seem to have any medical or scientific background (Stodolsky 3).
In order to maximize the success of the procedure, technicians must intervene as soon as possible. Legally, this means the individual must be dead. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the definition of death can vary depending on the region, or even the hospital. Based on Alcor’s protocol, cardiac death seems to be sufficient to pronounce legal death—in Arizona at least—therefore technicians can begin the process as soon as the patient’s heart stops beating. Ideally, they should intervene within the few minutes required for brain death to occur after cardiac death. The decomposition process starts almost immediately upon death, therefore every second is crucial. This is why many facilities include standby services in their price. This service can include relocation to a hospice near the chosen cryonics facility, or the deployment of personnel if relocation is not possible. Once the dying patient’s condition becomes critical, the staff waits round the clock to begin life support procedures as soon as possible.
When the patient is dead, their body is placed in an ice water bath to induce hypothermia. Blood circulation and breathing are artificially restored by a mechanical device called a heart-lung resuscitator. An anticoagulant is administered to prevent the blood from clotting and the brain from sustaining injury. If the body is located outside the chosen facility’s state, the blood is replaced with an organ preservation solution and the patient is packed in ice for shipment.
Once the patient arrives at the facility, their blood vessels are filled with a cryoprotectant solution that protects their organs and tissues from crystallizing. The body is then placed head down in a cooling box to provide extra precaution against the brain thawing should there eventually be a leak. The box is then placed in a dewar—a vaccum-insulated container for cold fluids—that is then gradually filled with liquid nitrogen, ensuring the body uniformly cools down to -196 C. The bodies are kept in the dewar until such a time where they can be resuscitated, or until some terrible calamity occurs (Watson; Alcor Life Extension Foundation Human Cryopreservation Protocol).
The main issue most people have with cryonics is that it seems to be a long shot. Most experts believe the probability of successfully reanimating a cryopreserved body is so astoundingly low as to be effectively zero (Monette 749). This is compounded by the fact that the procedure is still at an experimental stage; current members are more likely to become failed test subject than success stories. While the added vitrification process is promising, current freezing techniques are still far too damaging to the body. Innovation in the industry is also hindered by the painstaking efforts cryogenic scientists take to distance themselves from cryonics, fearing that any association would damage their respectability. Consequently, very few cryobiologists are currently working on cryonics-related research (Problems Associated with Cryonics).
But even if future generations somehow find a cure for most diseases and, I suppose, reverse death, it is impossible to speculate how long such a feat could take. Having a business model based on such uncertainty seems rather untenable.
Lack of funds is likely to become a real concern. After 55 years in business, American cryonics organizations still only have a total of around 2,000 members willing to go through with the process, while their growth rate declines every year (Stodolsky 3). So, why are people not signing up in droves?
For one, not all people necessarily want to extend their life. Others may simply have religious reasons for their disinterest. But what about those who would be interested? A recent poll showed that over half of respondents would consider being cryonically frozen, yet enrollment continues to stagnate (6). Aside from the prohibitive cost, one issue seems to be the way cryonics is marketed, or rather how it is not. One way to increase membership would be to mend the adversarial relationships between cryonics organizations and the death care industry. A greater collaboration between both industries would provide more than just increased profits. Funeral homes equipped with the necessary tools to ensure all deceased patients are automatically cooled down upon legal death would mean more potential sales and less potential damage to future cryopreserved bodies (7).
Some risks seem completely out of the organizations’ control. What happens in the event of war, political interference, or economic crisis, for example? Still, if cryonics appeals to you and you have the necessary funds, it seems like a safe bet. There is no downside to it failing, as you simply continue to be dead. But if it succeeds, you may get a second chance at life.
It’s important to note that cryonics and cryogenics are not the same thing, as shown in the hilariously curt message HERE on the Cryogenic Society of America’s website.
Also, Walt Disney was never cryonically frozen (Novak).
This is but a brief summary of cryonics. There exists a great wealth of detailed information on this fascinating subject, both online and in academic journals, if you’re interested in pursuing your research.
Best, B. (2016). A History of Cryonics.
Cohen, C. (2012). Bioethicists must rethink the concept of death: the idea of brain death is not appropriate for cryopreservation. Clinics, 67(2), pp. 93-94.
Milburn.C. (2014). Posthumanism. In R.Latham (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (pp. 524-536). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Monette, Michael. (April 17, 2012). The church of cryopreservation. CMAJ, 184(7), pp. 749-750.
Stodolsky. D.S. (2016). The growth and decline of cryonics. Cogent Social Sciences, 2, pp. 1-16.