Hell frozen over

Freezing 112 human bodies and 91 domestic animals forever: the chilling truth about cryonics

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Luna Schlosser: What's it feel like to be dead for 200 years?

Miles Monroe: Like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills.

- Sleeper, 1973.

The Cryonics Institute in Michigan currently houses 112 frozen human beings and 91 domestic animals – Fidoes, Felixes, Rovers, and Tiddleses – destined for resurrection in a future society: a society in which the tyranny of death has been overthrown and replaced with a deep-freeze body vacation from which we can wake, like a years-long siesta. To call these procedures 'cryogenic' – as many do –  is apparently a grave but common error: “popular culture,” huffs the website for the Cryogenic Society of America, “is full of mistaken references to cryogenics in terms of body freezing. Individuals, script writers, novelists, TV writers, everyone – please do not confuse these two words.” 

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Fictions like these are a popular mirror for the public view of cryonics as the desperate preserve of the superwealthy kook; a post-death echo of Michael Jackson's hyperbaric chamber, or another vogueish quasi-“cult” like Scientology

A reluctance to see its projects attached to the field of cryonics would seem to be wholly understandable on the CSA's part: consider Woody Allen's nebbish health-food-store employee in Sleeper;  Halperin's The First Immortal, and the more ignoble Austin Powers; a straight-to-video masterpiece of a movie, entitled Nazis at the Centre of the Earth – these are the cultural touchstones with which we are dealing. A hoax news story once claimed that the heiress Paris Hilton – an undeniable asset, surely, to both contemporary society, and to the brave new Huxleyan world of the recently-defrosted year-3000 social elite – had invested "a large sum of money" in Cryonics Institute, in the hope of "being frozen with her beloved pets," and "liv[ing] forever,” while a similar item emerged in the same year concerning Britney Spears. Ever the pragmatist, Spears purportedly “looked into having her ashes turned into diamonds after she is gone, but settled on the chance of getting to live in the future.” Only a true icon, one imagines, would "settle" for immortality – in the future, everyone might be famous for fifteen minutes, but the truly famous intend to endure for a little longer. 

Fictions like these are a popular mirror for the public view of cryonics as the desperate preserve of the superwealthy kook; a post-death echo of Michael Jackson's hyperbaric chamber, or another vogueish quasi-“cult” like Scientology. One anti-cryonics webpage reels off a list of offenses which border on Beat in both their arrangement and in their alarmist pop-dystopia content, describing: “teenagers groomed for vampire cults, unneccesary animal testing, dead bodies...decapitated...old ladies have been euthanized, bereaving [sic] families have been sued, families torn apart by cult behaviour, famous sportsmen immortalised by malpractice, graves dug up.”

You can try it and maybe live, and maybe die. Or you can not try it, and definitely die

michael_jackson_hyperbaric_oxygen-_chamber
Michael Jackson's hyperbaric chamber

“I would say the representation [of cryonic preservation] has been more favorable in recent years,” an Alcor employee informed me, when asked whether average people generally saw the field of cryonics as sci-fi bunkum. “Its reputation is changing, with more credible media sources investigating, reporting, and doing interviews with cryonicists in various backgrounds to give a broader based representation of the field.” She assures me that 'membership' of Alcor – the 'membership' terminology of the procedure being perhaps the most alarmingly cultlike aspect of the institutes' operations – is currently held by individuals whose ages “range from one to ninety-eight.” Of course, there are moral and ethical implications in the decision to tie an infant into a programme of this kind. “It wouldn’t take a lot of damage to shift somebody from being a reconstituted person to being a reconstituted vegetable,” fears Arthur Caplan, a director at the Bioethics dept. at Penn State. “Even if they are reanimated, they'll end up kind of a freak.”

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Earlier this year, a twenty-three-year-old St. Louis cancer-sufferer used the online community Reddit to campaign for the funds to preserve her head. Her religious family – conflicted at the thought of their daughter shut out of the afterlife, and inside her own suspended skull – struggled to come to terms with the spiritual implications of the seventy-thousand dollar procedure. There may be an alternate universe in which the famous head of John the Baptist sits on ice in a Michigan lab, but it seems an unlikely one; Christ could do in a few days what we strive to do in a few hundred years.

Everyone you see is dead, but it’s the Hamptons, so get over it

While those of you reading this and desiring to be cryonically preserved, incidentally, have the choice of being enrolled with either the Cryonics Institute or their rival, the cosmically-titled Alcor Life Extension Foundation, any UK residents wishing to be iced can sign up with Cryonics UK, a “standby assistance” service which will help to move your body to the desired location for freezing. “You can try it,” shrugs the touchingly English FAQ section of their webpage, “and maybe live, and maybe die. Or you can not try it, and definitely die.” In a recent essay in the Observer regarding British converts to the practice, a Whitby resident is similarly blasé about her investment in the idea of post-death preservation – “I really like being alive,” she explains.

Immortality is also the subject of a new subsidiary of Google, making it a fashionable subject for media discourse. TIME magazine's cover story "Can Google Solve Death?" presented, in its four-word inquiry, the idea of death not as an inevitability, but as a mathematics problem: a closer look at the relevant literature, however, reveals that the Google Calico offshoot aims to increase the average human lifespan by a hundred years before it tackles the 'problem' of actual human mortality.

“At least the dead don’t have to die,” the poet Frederick Seidel writes, as if envisaging a future in which the rich, the great and the good are technically alive forever – brought back from their cold Golgotha caves like Jesus Christ. “Everyone you see is dead, but it’s the Hamptons, so get over it.”

Conversely: “[I believe in] sex and death,” says Miles Monroe at the climax of Sleeper. “Two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after death, you're not nauseous."

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