Forty is a milestone on the ascent of summit life when you’re supposed to possess a warm, contented Ready-Brek glow, safe in the knowledge you are on the right track. Not for me, as it lurked on the near horizon like a sinister figure on a foggy moor beckoning me forth. Never before had the prospect of getting older felt more chilling.
Spending an inordinate amount of time sculpting a youthful visage courtesy of a vast arsenal of male grooming products; still trying to dress like something out of the Arctic Monkeys; tuning into re-runs of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ on Five US; considering the purchase of a convertible sports car, and even contemplating a goatee, I could tell I had some serious mid-life issues starting to play out.
I was frantically striving to put the ageing process on hold, digging my heels in more stubbornly than my English setter used to at the door of the local veterinary clinic.
And so when I read about a man who reckons he has the secret not only to eternal youth, but quite possibly, immortality, a meeting with him felt like a calling, if only to offer new-found hope the future was not necessarily all doom and gloom.
Just imagine immortality… The wisdom you could gain. The world events you would live through. The scientific discoveries. The advancement of mankind. The soul mates you might meet and fall in love with… Sure, nobody wants to be around for the 2145 incarnation of X Factor, but the idea still had enormous appeal, at least to me. I might even get the chance to finally see England win the World Cup, I thought to myself, as I made my way to meet Mr Ettinger at his spiritual home, The Cryonics Institute (CI), tucked away in a little town in Michigan called The Clinton Township. So tucked away I managed to drive straight past it. It was hidden within a cul de sac of prefabricated business units that made the Slough Trading Estate look like an architectural tour de force.
‘So… this is where the bodies are kept,’ he said matter-of-factly. In 16 years as a journalist I had never been greeted with a more remarkable, yet nonchalantly delivered line.
Robert Ettinger took the Oasis lyric – ‘You and I are gonna live forever’ – and ran with it until he reached a scientific ceiling. Pioneered by him, cryonics is a way of preserving the recently-deceased in the hope that scientific advances will enable them to be resuscitated in some future year.
The CI is one of only two cryonics facilities in the US, the other being the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.
I was greeted at the door by an amiable chap in casual attire introducing himself as Andy Zawacki, the CI’s Facilities Manager.
‘Robert’s not here yet. Would you like a quick tour?’ he asked.
‘Love one,’ I replied, following Andy along a corridor, through to a high-ceilinged storage area that had the wide, open dimensions of an aircraft hangar.
Andy explained that he had worked at the CI for over 20 years in his role as all-round handyman.
‘So… this is where the bodies are kept,’ he said matter-of-factly.
In sixteen years as a journalist I had never been greeted with a more remarkable, yet nonchalantly delivered line.
Andy gestured towards these enormous, white fibre-glass cylinders that looked like wheat silos.
‘I hand-built the first storage units myself,’ he declared proudly. ‘We now use an external manufacturer.’
I stared agog. The official terminology for these insulated containers is ‘cryostats’ and the bodies inside are called ‘cryo-preserved patients’, Andy went on to explain.
‘So how many are stored in that one,’ I asked, pointing towards the most prominent cylinder.
‘That’s the biggest one we have. There are 14 in there.’
He explained that the ‘patients’ are immersed in liquid nitrogen and stored upside down so that if there is ever any leakage it affects the feet first and not the brain. They are also covered by sleeping bags to protect them from any sudden surface warming when they are being installed and if they ever need to be moved.
It was an eerie thought to imagine the corpses inside but not remotely sinister, especially as Andy had the laid back air of a man showing me to the hanging baskets section at the local garden centre.
‘What would happen if you were hit by a power cut?’ I asked.
‘We’ve got generators that kick in. And we recently installed a sprinkler system in case of fires.’
‘What about extreme weather?’
‘Nothing we can do about that,’ Andy shrugged. ‘Touch wood we never get hit by a tornado.’
He led me back through to the main office. Mr Ettinger had just arrived and was sitting in a chair partially concealed behind the door.
Being unable to see his face certainly added a drum roll of intrigue to the moment. There was excitement enough to be gained from knowing I was finally about to meet someone with a significant entry on Wikipedia.
I half-hoped to peer round the door and discover an Ernst Stavro Blofeld figure stroking a Persian cat. But my cliched, James Bond-inspired illusions were shattered on seeing a kind-faced senior sitting there. He had a tufty, grey beard and moustache, wore a Cryonics Institute cap and struggled painfully out of the chair as he got up to greet me.
‘What would happen if you were hit by a power cut?’ I asked.
I dutifully followed as he hobbled, walking stick in hand, through to a neighbouring conference room. He would later tell me this was the legacy of a shrapnel wound he sustained during World War II, his bravery winning him the Purple Heart.
Inside, framed photographs of CI patients adorned the far wall. He leaned against the table in the middle of the room and with an air of tangible sadness pointed out his two wives, pictured in the prime of life as young women.
Both of them are cryo-preserved here along with his mother, Rhea. His mum was the CI’s first patient in 1977 and his first wife Elaine the second some ten years later.
Business has picked up since those first familial forays, the Internet helping to spark greater interest in cryo-preservation. Half of its 87 patients arrived in the last five years and on average it has six new patients cryo-preserved per year, ten arriving in 2007.
There was also the story of Ted Williams that put cryonics on the front pages in 2002. The death of the former Boston Red Sox player, considered one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball, was dogged by family squabbles over how he wanted his body disposed, centring on the authenticity of a note, allegedly signed by Williams, agreeing to his cryonic suspension.
Williams was inducted into the cryonics hall of fame at The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, or at least, his head was. He had the neuro option carried out. The theory, at least with some cryonics advocates, is that the brain’s information is the most critical part and the limbs can be dispensed with because come re-animation the technology will be in place to regenerate or clone the body.
The CI doesn’t offer a neuro option sensitive to the fact scare stories about frozen severed heads do little good for cryonics’ image.
As we sat down together I was struck by a peculiar thought. The smiling faces of the men and women in those framed pictures on the wall were the same people now immersed in the cylinders next door.
‘There has gradually been more acceptance over the years, though the Williams controversy was a setback,’ Robert told me. ‘Cryonics has suffered because there are a lot of short-sighted people, including a lot of very smart people. There are lots of reasons why people resist. People know smoking will shorten their lives but it doesn’t stop them smoking. The instincts of self-preservation only kick in when the danger is immediate.
‘Maybe there won’t be any USA, or church, or Republicans or Democrats in a thousand years. If something is seen as a threat to people’s beliefs and ideas they’ll likely resist. A contradiction lies in the fact that people today want to live longer. The food supplement industry is booming. People are not particularly rational but it is gradually changing.’
I was intrigued to learn more on the practicalities. How, for instance, would revived patients be able to afford the cost of living in hundreds of years time?
‘If patients are revived this means civilisation has endured which means society has got richer so the Cryonics Institute will have got richer.’
‘What about the difficulty of integrating in future societies?’ I asked.
‘People are adaptable. People do adjust. Rehabilitation technologies will be far advanced. There could be transitional environments.’
I couldn’t help a smile briefly forming on my lips recalling the South Park episode ‘Prehistoric Ice Man’ who wakes up in 1999 but needs everything oriented to the year he froze, 1996, so in his transitional environment they pipe in ‘All That She Wants’ by Ace Of Base.
Ettinger was in his early 40s when he wrote his epoch-making book, ‘The Prospect Of Immortality’ which was published in 1962 and helped launch the cryonics movement in the US. His interest grew out of a boyhood fascination with sci-fi tales. One that appeared in ‘Amazing Stories’ piqued his initial interest called ‘The Jameson Satellite’ in which a professor’s frozen corpse is sent into outer space before being retrieved by aliens who have the technology to revive him.
Ettinger figured the author had missed a key point: if immortality becomes achievable why not stay on earth to await rescue by our own, more medically advanced descendants?
I wondered, given the apparent downward spiral of today’s society, the escalating terrorism threat, and the distinct likelihood of imminent environmental catastrophe, what his own incentive was for wanting to come back.
‘Most books written about the future are dystopias. An asteroid could hit earth. A plague could wipe out civilisation. Terrorists could get hold of a nuclear bomb. On balance, more likely than not, there’ll be a favourable future. We got through the Cold War.
‘I’m interested in the changes the future will bring. Most people don’t want radical change. Radical change is frightening to them. They want the present gold-plated. In other words, with some of the unpleasant factors removed.
‘Acquiring new capabilities and new knowledge is interesting to me. Even if life is no better than it is today it would still be worthwhile. There is pleasure in the simple things. A stroll in the park, look at the flowers. The pleasures currently available are enough to justify wanting to continue to live in my view.’
He was putting forward a persuasive argument and my inner Highlander fancied a shot at immortality more than ever.
There are three main barriers standing in the way of revival of cryo-preserved patients as of today. Discovering a cure for currently fatal diseases that likely brought about the patient’s death; finding a way of reversing the ageing process; and, the biggest obstacle of all according to Ettinger, repairing the damage caused by the freezing process.
Frozen severed heads do little good for cryonics’ image.
As soon as possible after certifiable death the patient’s blood is replaced with a cryoprotectant fluid, which aims to prevent the formation of ice crystals that damage tissue during the cooling process. This is usually carried out on mortuary premises.
He explained that improved vitrification methods will put less of a burden on future technology to resolve the issue of freezing damage, and hence when it comes to re-animation the most recent patients will be easier to revive and it will be a case of, ‘Last in, first out’.
Essentially, cryonics disciples are putting their faith in advances in nanotechnology – specifically, the manipulation of atoms and molecules eventually being capable of building or repairing human cells and biological tissue.
For those who think this all sounds ludicrous, Robert A Freitas, a Senior Research Fellow and leading light in the field of molecular nanotechnology, in his text ‘Nanomedicine’ states, ‘I would not be surprised if the first cryonics revival was attempted by 2040-2050.’
And at the July 2005 Society for Cryobiology Conference, it was announced that a rabbit kidney had been completely vitrified to solid state at -135ºC, re-warmed and transplanted to a rabbit with complete viability.
‘Do you want to see the cat-stat?’ Ettinger enthused, with a boy-like twinkle in his eye.
‘Sure,’ I smiled, not entirely certain what he was referring to.
It’s a little known fact – well, I certainly didn’t know it until this moment – that cryo-preserved patients often have their pets deep frozen too and around 50 dogs, cats and birds are stored at the CI.
I followed Robert back through to the main storage facility where he twisted the lid off a steel cylinder, about the size of an old-fashioned garbage can.
A mist, like dry ice, rose up out of it. It was the only moment when it felt like being on the set of ‘Carry On Screaming’. But Robert didn’t produce the sinister cackle of a mad professor, instead, expressing disappointment that he couldn’t show me more.
‘If it wasn’t for the fog all you’d see is the liquid nitrogen. The cats are in sleeping bags too, just like the humans.’
Back in the main office I was introduced to Ben Best, the CI president. He was putting together a speech entitled, ‘Save your ass, not your assets’ that he was going to give to an audience of potential future CI members in California.
The CI has over 700 people signed up to be future patients and is always on the look out for new recruits. I had always assumed cryonics was the preserve of wealthy Americans with more money than sense but Robert highlighted that it can be funded inexpensively by paying into a life insurance policy, and the basic cryo-preservation procedure can be carried out for as little as $28,000.
"Today’s corpse will very likely be tomorrow’s patient."
‘For most people it’s more of a psychological obstacle rather than a financial one,’ he said.
And he is convinced demand will grow over time. ‘Like the stock market it will rally at some point. There will be a big surge. It will be something that impacts people’s psychology that will be the catalyst for growth.’
He very kindly offered to buy me lunch and I tailgated him to a nearby diner. A sticker on the trunk of his white Lumina read ‘Choose Life!’ giving the CI contact details below.
As he tucked into his tuna melt and I struggled to control the melted cheese strands of lasagna hanging from my fork, the atmosphere perceptibly lightened so I decided to be a little more daring with my questions.
I asked him how he plans to handle the delicate situation of being revived along with his two wives.
‘It could be very straight forward and neither of them will want me. Or… there’s a saying that the rich have a better class of problems. That would be a very high class problem,’ he smiled.
I couldn’t resist posing a philosophical dilemma.
‘If you are re-animated in the future but have no recollection of your former life, how can you say that it is actually you?’
He offered the analogy of amnesia patients.
‘Regardless of memory loss, if you are revived after being frozen, you have survived. You’ve changed a whole lot from when you were an infant too but it’s still you.’
Listening to him speak I was struck by the clarity of his explanations. This was a steadfastly scientific, rational man, his words grounded in teak solid reasoning.
I asked him what his reply is to people who say cryonics is a way of cheating death, and death is what gives meaning to our lives; knowing that our time on the planet is finite.
‘Those who say they don’t mind dying usually don’t mean right now or tomorrow. If they do mean it, their minds are distorted by misery or depression, and they forget that, if we are successful, they will not only be alive but in youthful good health.
‘The cycle of generations comforts some, but this cycle will end, probably in this century. Babies born today may never die, at least of natural causes. Maybe you don’t mind being part of the cycle, but if there is no more cycle, do you want to be the last dinosaur?’
Robert is retired now and lives off three pensions. I figured he would be a local celebrity, hugely famous and fabulously wealthy. But this was a frail 89-year-old man, modestly dressed, living a low key existence in a humble Michigan suburb.
He lives a mere ten minutes away from the CI and told me he is fully prepared for his own cryo-preservation.
‘Are you afraid of dying?’ I asked.
‘It’s a popular misconception that people in cryonics have an exaggerated fear of death. I’m not afraid of death. I’ve been near death several times. I wasn’t afraid then and I’m not afraid now. The way in which I die I’m afraid of, like a stroke.’
With a look bordering on envy, he told me if I was lucky technologies would be discovered during my lifetime, possibly in the next 30 years, that would enable age reversal.
I could see his lament for lost youth ran much deeper than mine, and understandably so. It’s one thing to look down the ages of the current England football team and accept, resignedly, that your time has now passed, quite another to lose many of those most precious to you and experience the daily aches and pains that accompany a man of his years.
Robert has also spent much of his life defending his work in a field that many have wanted to debunk and ridicule. Cryonics has had to overcome the stigma of it being a bogus science and the people involved being these wacky fantasists paranoid about dying which, if Ettinger is anything to go by, is way off the mark. His theories seemed sound enough to me and his desire to live life again as a sprightly, young man made perfect sense.
On departing the restaurant I asked a woman to take a photograph of us.
‘Do you know who this man is?’ I asked.
She shrugged. She had no idea which was totally understandable but sad all the same.
I shook Robert warmly by the hand and watched him drive away in his Lumina. Maybe the Michigan weather, grey and drizzly, reinforced my solemn mood, but it felt like the most poignant of farewells.
In a few, insightful hours I had learnt that cryonics is a legitimate endeavour and those who choose to be cryo-preserved are merely reacting to a logical conclusion: that living and breathing is a far more agreeable state of affairs than being six feet under.
The cryo-preserved patients stored at the CI are lovers of life and brave pioneers. They closed their eyes with genuine hope that one day they would open them again, prepared to evolve into a new life, in a new world.
Ettinger is famously quoted as saying, ‘Today’s corpse will very likely be tomorrow’s patient.’ As I drove back to the hotel I imagined him waking up in the year 2150, re-born as a healthy young man, leaping euphorically off the operating table before being reunited with his two wives and his mum and pulling back the curtains to discover a peaceful, cleaner, more beautiful world.
At such a moment I think he would have every right to punch the air in delirious glee shouting, ‘I told you so, you sons of bitches.’
Defying the cynics and the critics is its own reward and I was left feeling that his visionary thinking deserved such an outcome.
Our encounter had also served as a chastening reminder we are all slaves to the passage of time, despite our best efforts to fight it. It had been a wake up call to start appreciating the present more than before.
I was scrapping the idea of a goatee, but I might just look into that life insurance scheme Robert mentioned.
Why be fretful about turning 40 when I might yet live forever.
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