Cryonics Institute freezes dead for ‘reanimation’ 

Souls on ice

Inside the brick-fronted warehouse in Clinton Township, the body count has topped 100, not counting a small menagerie of pets — cats and dogs, mostly, and a few birds. Nestled inside Wal-Mart sleeping bags, the bodies stand upside-down within 10-foot-high tanks resembling immense white thermos bottles. “Technology for life” reads the logo emblazoned on their sides. The tanks are filled with liquid nitrogen, lowering the temperature inside to -321 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is the Cryonics Institute, and the people in those tanks — “cryostats,” they’re called — after being declared dead, have had their bodies frozen in perpetuity in the belief that future science may be able to thaw them, cure their ills, and, just maybe, return them to youthful vigor. They’ve made a bet: that in a time yet to come, they’ll rise again, with “death” only a temporary and reversible embarrassment easily remedied by medical know-how. 

“We’re not trying to bring people back to life. We don’t believe they’re really dead; if dead’s final, then they weren’t dead,” says Dennis Kowalski, president of the Cryonics Institute, which claims to have 1,100 living members worldwide. Members pay yearly dues of $120, or $1,250 for a lifetime membership, then about $28,000 when actually frozen. (In comparison, the average adult funeral in the United States costs about $8,000.) For many, life insurance benefits cover the preservation costs. 

The overwhelming majority of members — more than 600 — are from the United States, where CI is among the best-known cryonics facilities and is a relatively short plane ride away. It’s difficult to estimate how many people undergo the procedure every year, given patient confidentiality requests and the lack of centralized record-keeping, but in 2013 the Cryonics Institute preserved five people — about an average year. Worldwide, the yearly rate is likely in the low double digits. 

At 46, Kowalski has the stocky build and thick, dark mustache that practically obliges him to be a firefighter or paramedic. In fact, he’s both. He compares the institute’s work to what he does every day. “We’re an ambulance ride to a future hospital that doesn’t exist — that may or may not exist.” That, of course, is the gamble: that there’s a cure waiting on the other side of the deep freeze. 

PHOTOS: Inside the Michigan Cryonics Institute Where the Dead Are Frozen for ‘Reanimation’>>

But death is a gray line, Kowalski says, and it’s always moving. What might have been terminal 150, 15, even five years ago is treatable today. Something as simple as CPR has saved countless lives; cardiac defibrillation — the “shock paddles” used to jump-start a stopped heart — has revived patients previously considered dead. What’s “dead” mean to medicine, other than a challenge? From that perspective, he says, a storehouse of frozen bodies is no more macabre than a heart transplant, a now-common medical procedure once considered grotesque. 

Right now, though, cryonics is more like an in-progress medical trial. Advances in stem-cell research, nanotechnology, and therapeutic cloning give Kowalski and other cryonicists hope, but he admits there are no guarantees. Today’s frozen people are already dead, or “deanimated,” as some prefer; tomorrow’s helpful scientists will not only have to successfully thaw their “patients,” but return them to life. (And reunite them with their pets, though some are frozen out of generosity, their owners simply hoping to give their beloved animals more life.) That’s assuming, fingers crossed, that they’ve been frozen in a recoverable way, without too much tissue damage, and that they’ve been carefully maintained. Once thawed, they’ll have to be treated for being “dead,” by whatever methods would make that possible. And who wants to wake up alone in the future in a body already ravaged by time? Better to hope that a new, youthful body is waiting for you. 

There are a lot of ifs, and Kowalski’s the first to admit there are no guarantees. (Being stored upside-down, for example, is a precaution in case of a liquid nitrogen leak: the heads, being closer to the bottom of the tank, would be less likely to prematurely thaw.) “This is in the most literal sense a clinical experiment, and we already know what happens with the control group,” he says, meaning those choosing more traditional postmortem options. “They’re worm food.” And maybe the cryonics bet doesn’t pay off, and you’re still worm food. So what? As he likes to say, cryonics can’t make you deader than dead. 

Kowalski came to cryonics in the late 1980s, via a book called Engines of Creation, about the then-new science of nanotechnology. An entire chapter devoted to cryonics quoted Benjamin Franklin, who mused about being preserved in a cask of Madeira wine, then revived a century later to see how his experiment in democracy had panned out. Nanotechnology, the book suggested, was on the cusp of realizing that possibility — using tiny machines rather than fermented grapes. To Kowalski, preserving your body until it could be rebuilt seemed a pragmatic, reasonable bet against death. That led him to the Cryonics Institute. 


By that time, cryonics had a storied history. Pulp mags had long told tales of suspended animation through freezing, but in 1964 Robert Ettinger, a physics teacher and occasional sci-fi author then living in Oak Park, published The Prospect of Immortality. In it, Ettinger began with one “fact” and one assumption, then vigorously extrapolated. The fact, he wrote, is that freezing could preserve human tissue indefinitely. He then assumed that medical science should be able to, eventually, solve every one of the human body’s failings. From those two points, he predicted that widespread cryonic preservation was inevitable, as everyone chose freezer-assisted immortality. Eventually, only eccentrics would refuse it. 

With its scientific-sounding gloss on an enduring idea, the book was a hit, and Ettinger spread the word on late-night talk shows and in radio interviews. He made some converts along the way, and soon came attempts to prove out his vision. The first failed, leading to “worm food,” but on January 12, 1967, a psychology professor named James Bedford was successfully frozen in California. He’s still preserved today; reportedly, he remains in good condition. Among cryonicists, January 12 has become “Bedford Day.” 

In 1976, Ettinger founded the Cryonics Institute to bring preservation to the masses. Affordability was a major objective, so the organization runs as a nonprofit, funded by dues from living members and investment proceeds designed to provide a steady income. (The CI website boasts that it’s the only cryonics organization never to have raised its prices, and that, adjusting for inflation, the cost has actually declined.) Ettinger’s mother, Rhea, died a year later and was the first to be stored at the facility. But low, low prices weren’t enough to attract the masses; she remained the sole occupant for nearly a decade.

The Prospect of Immortality unleashed Ettinger’s idea on the world, and cryonics facilities began popping up across the country. Few lasted. In 1979, a facility in Chatsworth, California, was revealed to contain nine badly decomposed bodies. The operator claimed that he’d acted charitably, trying to maintain the facility even though he had no way to pay for liquid nitrogen. Relatives of the deceased sued for fraud and won a hefty settlement. The “Chatsworth disaster” offered an object lesson, and stained the reputation of cryonics for years. 

Today, the most well-known cryonics facility is probably Alcor, which houses baseball legend Ted Williams. A lengthy court battle followed his death in 2002, when his oldest daughter claimed he’d preferred cremation, but that other family members had forged a “family pact,” written on a scrap of paper and bearing Williams’ signature, declaring he wanted to be frozen. Williams’ daughter couldn’t afford to pursue her suit, and the slugger remains at Alcor, where his head was removed and frozen separately from his body. Some patients opt to have only their heads frozen, saving space and money, on the assumption that the brain is the only organ essential to saving personality and memories. Contrary to persistent rumors, Walt Disney’s frozen head is not in a tank somewhere; though he considered cryonics, he was instead cremated.

Despite that public controversy, and later, at-least-partially-debunked stories that Williams’ head was grievously mistreated, Alcor is probably the closest thing to a “brand name” in cryonics. Like CI, it’s a nonprofit organization, though its services are much more expensive and its facility much more self-consciously futuristic. Located in Scottsdale, Arizona — America’s self-declared “Most Livable City,” chosen in part for its favorable weather, nearby airports, and low risk of natural disaster — the Alcor facility’s blocky exterior looks something like an immense granite tomb garnished with palm trees and shrubberies. Inside dwells Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter. And James Bedford, the world’s first frozen man. Corporate sounding name, celebrity guests, and lovely geography — next to Alcor, the Cryonics Institute, with its plain brick building, lower expenses, and ethos of do-it-yourself volunteerism has the charm of a scrappy Midwestern underdog. 

Ettinger’s second “patient” didn’t arrive at CI until November 1987, with the death of his first wife. In 2000, his second wife followed, as patient number 34. “The father of cryonics” died in 2011 at 92. He was the 106th person stored at the Cryonics Institute. His portrait hangs on a wall. Visitors can look on him and other patients, photographically preserved, often as the youthful selves they hope to become again. By the tanks stand a collection of numbered white boxes. Family members can leave mementos for their inverted loved ones, as they would at a grave or mausoleum. 

Kowalski, the current Institute president, says membership began to climb in the early 1990s, as more households came online. While cryonics remained a science fiction concept for most people, a plot device in movies like Sleeper and Forever Young or fringe entertainment on late-night talk shows, the Internet helped the idea reach more people, unfiltered. It reached the right people — the kind ready to be convinced by Ettinger’s faith in technology and progress. Kowalski also credits recent medical advances that make the procedure seem less improbable. “I definitely think these things are making more light bulbs go off in people’s heads,” he says. 

What kind of light bulb, in whose head? Kowalski says, unsurprisingly, that cryonicists are often sci-fi fans, the type who read The Prospect of Immortality in the early ’60s, or Engines of Creation in the ’80s — books written by authors unafraid to speculate, to blur the line between science and science fiction. Many CI members, Kowalski says, are well-educated, with degrees in science and medicine; according to The New York Times, among living cyronicists the ratio of men to women is roughly 3-1. By definition, they’re people willing to stake what they call a “no-lose” bet — because, again, you can’t be made deader than dead.

One of them is Joe Kowalsky (no relation), a 49-year-old financial consultant and Star Trek fan from Lathrup Village. He discovered cryonics when he was 13 or so, and joined CI in his early 20s. “There just doesn’t seem to be enough time for everything I want to do,” he says, and he doesn’t want to just be born, have kids, move to Florida, and die. He’d rather go into space, become a chef, fly a plane, and fly a blimp — enough plans for several lifetimes. The world is full of knowledge to be gained and pain to be alleviated, and death just stands in the way of that, for no good reason. It’s absurd.

“If people lived longer,” he says, “I would hope that they would say, ‘Gosh, maybe we don’t have to step all over other people as much.” He hopes cryonics will not just save lives, but cure the petty shortsightedness that comes with knowing you’re going to die. It might make for not just longer lives, but for better people. In that sense, in offering a vision of a future deathless utopia, the animating ideas of cryonics brush up against religious thought. 

Kowalsky doesn’t see himself as a proselyte — he’s not standing on rooftops shouting the new gospel. But unlike many cryonicists, often agnostic or atheist and not inclined to worry about the disposition of the soul, he says he’s “fairly confident there’s something out there.” For him, God endowed humans with the ability to preserve life, and the responsibility to do so wherever possible. Cryonics is an attempt. Far from irreligious hubris, it’s an exercise in humility because its ultimate success is unpredictable. “It’s a humble thing to say, ‘We just don’t know,’” he says. 

Few religions have an official stance on cryonics, perhaps because it’s so rarely practiced. Notions vary about the state of the body after death, and even about what should be considered “death.” In 1989, Pope John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on “the problem of the moment of death” and its implications for organ transplantation. “Death can mean decomposition, disintegration, a separation,” he stated, adding that “it occurs when the spiritual principle which ensures the unity of the individual can no longer exercise its functions in and upon the organism, whose elements left to themselves, disintegrate.” The Pontiff’s view still leaves open questions for moral theologians and bioethicists. Because cryonics concerns the hazy line between life and death, its religious implications appear equally murky.

But opposition to cryonics doesn’t have to be religiously motivated. Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine and a contributor to Scientific American, found cryonics unappealing because it reminded him too much of religion: “It promises everything, delivers nothing (but hope) and is based almost entirely on faith in the future.” He dubbed it “borderlands science,” only nominally based in reality; he worried about the evangelical zeal among some cryonicists, saying, “It is not impossible for cryonics to succeed; it is just exceptionally unlikely.” That was in 2001. Since then he’s joined the advisory board of the Brain Preservation Foundation, a small organization dedicated to experiments in capturing consciousness by preserving the brain, but it’s unclear whether he’s changed his views on cryonics.

Religious question aside, Joe Kowalsky sees cryonics as another form of surgery, albeit a still-developing one. Of today’s frozen patients, he says, “These are the Barney Clarks, the pioneers,” referring to the first human recipient of an artificial heart. Too sick for a heart transplant, Clark knew his chances were slim for long-term survival. But in 1982, he went ahead in the interest of advancing science, sparking a media frenzy and debates about appropriate treatments for “terminal” patients. He lived for 112 days; today, researchers are still working to perfect the artificial heart. 

Kowalsky wants to advance cryonics the way Barney Clark advanced the artificial heart, and to that end he’s helped establish the Organ Cryopreservation Prize, offering $50,000 for the successful freezing and thawing of human organs for transplantation. The project earned him a visit with   Leonard Nimoy, which he considers a highlight of his life.

Like many cryonicists, Kowalsky has had time to plan and consider, and if all goes well he’ll have a long and full life. In late 2012, 23-year-old  Suozzi, a neuroscience student from St. Louis, Missouri, posted to the online forum Reddit, explaining that she had only months to live. On her blog, she explained she’d decided on cryopreservation. “Many of you know that I’m agnostic; I don’t have any clue what happens when you die, but have no reason to think that my consciousness will continue on after death,” she wrote. Her Christian parents balked at the decision, which they believed rejected the idea of a soul, and of Heaven. Neither would help her pay for the procedure. But, she wrote, “The only thing that I can think to make me feel a little more at ease with my death is to secure cryopreservation plans on the off-chance that they figure out how to revive people in the future. The way I see it, it’s a better bet than decomposing or getting cremated.”

Lacking life insurance to pay for cryonics, Suozzi asked Reddit readers for help. “I wish I could give a particularly compelling reason why I deserve another chance at life,” she wrote, “but there’s not much to say. I’m still just a kid, and hadn’t even finished college when I was diagnosed. Unfortunately the most interesting thing I have yet to do is get a terminal disease at a young age.” With the help of Society for Venturism, a cryonics advocacy and support group, she met her fundraising goal. In January 2013, she was preserved at Alcor. 

Her story reached Aaron Winborn, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, man who’d also been diagnosed with a terminal disease and sought financial help for cryopreservation. In August 2012, Winborn, then 45, had tried to clip his fingernails. When he couldn’t, he assumed the clippers were faulty. Later, he needed help getting his luggage into the overhead bin on an airplane. His arms suddenly weren’t strong enough. He kept getting weaker, with no apparent cause. Doctors ran tests, then more tests. They ruled out everything until they could say: Winborn had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

His doctor explained to him that ALS is incurable, that Winborn would likely be dead in two to three years. Before then, his motor functions would gradually deteriorate, eventually leaving him conscious but locked within his own body. His diaphragm would fail; breathing machines and a tracheostomy would be necessary to keep him alive. 

Knowing he’d soon be unable to climb stairs, Winborn and his wife and two young daughters moved to a ranch-style house in a grassy green neighborhood in suburban Harrisburg, Soon he was in a motorized wheelchair, halved tennis balls attached to the rung beneath his feet. It became difficult for him to understand spoken language, and he could type only using a special eye-tracking technology. He continued working as a web developer, moving his computer to the living room, in front of a wide picture window looking out onto the street. 

He’d considered cryonics before, but hadn’t thought about life insurance because he felt so young. “When I was 12, I simply assumed that people live forever; if other people didn’t, certainly I would,” he says. After the diagnosis, insurance was no longer an option. Like Suozzi, he appealed to the Society for Venturism, which raised the money to have him preserved at the Cryonics Institute. 

“We’re all born with a death sentence,” he says. “I was probably born with a death sentence that was more clear than others — it’s largely genetic.” But he worries about the effect on his children, not just of his absence, but of his bodily presence; of being there but not being there. He wants them to have closure, to not spend their lives waiting for Daddy to wake up. When his older daughter, Ashlin, first heard about his diagnosis and preservation plan, she was 7. Her first reaction was to ask if she could be frozen, too. 

“I told her she had to wait until she’s 18.”

He wrote a story for his children called “Where Did Daddy Go?” In it, a young girl searches for her father. She asks the sun, the ocean, the moon, and the earth. Each has an answer, then tells her to go ask another someone. Her older sister says, “Little sister, Dad had big dreams, and he told me once that after he died, that he would have his body frozen, and that maybe someday, they might build giant robot factories in the sky that might be able to help him live again. But I think you should ask Mom.”

And her mother responds, “Well, Daddy did die, as we all will someday. I don’t know about the robot thing, but I know that your father loved you with all his heart, and would have done anything to be with us now. That wasn’t possible, though, because his body got too sick to keep going. But I do know that whatever happens, he will always be right there, in our hearts and memories.”

When Aaron Winborn thinks about the future, he has hope. He thinks about beating ALS by going through death and coming out the other side. It’s a way of hastening the future. “The society that reanimates me would be advanced enough to reanimate me,” he says, “would be progressive enough to do so, and compassionate enough to do so. That sounds like a society I wouldn’t mind coming back to.”

He doesn’t know if it will work — in fact, he figures he has somewhere between a .8 percent chance and a 30 percent chance. But going into the ground has a 0 percent chance of coming back. “I just think I’d like to gamble for the future,” he says. He’d rather get there the long way, as he puts it, but since that’s not an option, he’s ready to try cryonics. As his ALS progresses, he will likely reach a point where he is trapped in his own body, free to think but unable to move. He will have to choose between dying or having a machine breathe for him. It’s comforting, he says, to be able to decline medical intervention: “So I get to choose when I plan to go.” 

If he could, he says, he knows how he would go. “I’d like to take a road trip up to Detroit,” to the Cryonics Institute, he says, where he’d have a big party, say his goodbyes to everyone before making his way into the cold unknown, and then, finally, “unplug myself and wake up in the future.”

Jesse Hicks is a freelance writer in Detroit specializing in science and technology features.

View more photos from inside the Cryonics Institute here.

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