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Cryonics Institute freezes dead for ‘reanimation’ 

Souls on ice

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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.

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