If you’re looking for a way to control your money from the grave and religious promises of spiritual immortality don’t grab you, then your brass ring may be cryogenic internment.
Cryogenic internment or cryonics involves the freezing of the corpse in the hope that medical science will eventually find methods to repair the damage which caused its demise. The name is derived from the Greek kryo, meaning “icy cold” or “frost.” Stored at a supercool temperature the person in cryonic internment will theoretically “keep” indefinitely. When medical science has evolved to where the cause of the individual’s death could have been prevented and even death itself reversed, the corpse would be thawed, death reversed, the cause of the terminal condition cured and the “patient” returned to a normal active life. It is also hoped that a “cure” for aging will be found.
Cellular deterioration of the deceased body must be halted as soon as possible after death. Under the best circumstances, suspension should begin within moments of legal death. (Freezing an individual before death would make him the perfect candidate for suspension.) Ideally, a heart-lung machine would be attached to the body to maintain circulation and prevent the brain, vital organs, and other body tissue from deteriorating. Next, a heat exchanger would gradually lower the body’s temperature at a controlled rate to guard against unnecessary cell damage. These complex procedures, however, have not yet been performed on a prospective suspensee.
The current technique is similar to embalming. After the “patient” has been declared clinically dead, the blood is drained and the body cooled to -40° F. The arteries and lungs are then perfused with glycerol, a substance naturally present in the bodies of many northern insects, to help retard cellular damage due to the expansion of ice crystals. The body is wrapped in aluminum foil to protect against accumulated frost due to condensation, and stored in a dry ice container similar to a coffin at a temperature of -110° F. The body can be stored for months in this state until a final decision is reached and further physical and financial arrangements are made. From the temporary dry ice box, the corpse is later transferred to a permanent cryocapsule, resembling a thermos bottle, and stored in liquid nitrogen at -320° F. Maintenance consists of periodically checking the internal temperature and replacing the nitrogen that has vaporized and escaped.
The initial cost of encapsulation is approximately $10,000. This covers the cost of chemical, capsule, preparation and handling of the body, and one year’s storage. His and hers cryocapsules are also available. Continued storage and replacement of liquid nitrogen costs about $1,200 per year. No fixed amount has been projected for the restoration of the body, should it ever be possible.
Some members of cryonics societies maintain insurance policies made over to the societies to pay for future preparation and maintenance costs. Even under carefully drawn trusts and insurance provisions, the money — as governed by current laws — can’t remain theirs forever.
Estate and inheritance taxes are especially designed to prevent the hording of fortunes. But the cryonics people plan to lobby for changes in the “laws of perpetuity.”
The underlying theory of preservation by freezing is the control of molecular activity. At such low temperatures molecular movement, for all practical purposes, ceases, arresting further cellular deterioration. As the theory goes, life requires biochemical change, which occurs through movement of molecules in an aqueous environment. If water in the protoplasm of living cells is converted to ice at temperatures low enough to greatly slow molecular movement, and if the biological system can be rewarmed without consequent damage, then the life of those cells can be held in “suspended animation,” or preserved by freezing.
Freezing is the best way to preserve biological material, but is the life of the person truly suspended? In addition to the fact that only dead bodies have been frozen, cryonics proponents are the first to admit that freezing itself damages. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to completely perfuse all of the cells in a multi-billion-celled human body. Even in a controlled laboratory, when cells are perfused with glycerol, then frozen, only a 70 to 80 percent recovery rate is reported. With the variety and bulk of cells in the human body, the rate of damage is much higher. Even relatively small body organs do not stand up well to the extreme low temperature necessary for cryonics suspension. Whole organs thus far subjected to freezing have been nonfunctional afterwards.
Much remains to be learned about freezing damage, but some of the problems are known. Water expands as it freezes: expansion of water inside a cell can rupture the cell membrane, expansion of water between cells can crush them, and the freezing of any water can leave a residue of various salts in lethal concentrations. It appears possible that some of the physical effects of freezing can be obviated by freezing under such high pressure that the water cannot expand as it turns to ice. The successful freezing of bodies will undoubtedly require more than the ability to freeze the component parts successfully, but even this more limited objective may be difficult to achieve.
There have been some partial victories reported in scientific journals, such as cats’ brains frozen for six months and thawed to resume electrical activity. But it has been pointed out that enzymes in frozen tissue may be unaffected and will produce electrical activity in a thawed brain even though the vital cells have long since died.
Blood banks provide the most successful example of cryopreservation. Before techniques of freezing were available, only blood plasma could be stored for long periods; whole blood itself lasted a maximum of only three weeks. Now whole blood — cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen — can be kept for more than two years without deteriorating. Corneas can also be stockpiled.
Sperm banks have become a reality and in 1973 a calf was born in England after being deep-frozen as an embryo, thawed, then transplanted into the uterus of a foster mother. Experiments are being conducted on the storage of nerve ganglia, hearts, and kidneys. But no attempt has yet been made to thaw and reanimate a frozen human being.
At this point, freezing just doesn’t work. They can freeze you, all right, but they just can’t defrost you.
The cryonics movement is an interesting example of unwillingness to accept death’s inevitability. The long term goal is physical immortality, and even though members realize that at this stage chances of revival are quite slim, they prefer (what they conceive of as) the frozen postponement of their destiny. Encapsulation also lessens anxieties concerning the physical deterioration of the body and relatives reportedly find comfort that their dearly departed are “frozen but not gone.” By contrast other individuals have endeavored to rise above their own mortality through a total transformation of their attitude toward the ego-bound personality — by accepting and cooperating with the natural processes of death and rebirth. It’s the space age version of Ponce de Leon and his abortive search for the Fountain of Youth. The cryonics movement has been accurately summed up by Ernest Morgan in his Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial: “They propose to leave to posterity a collection of diseased and superannuated bodies, waiting to be revived at great effort and expense in a strange culture, with their families and friends gone and their skills obsolete. Big deal.” Still, some people think it’s a better chance of living long than dying is.