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Putting Death in a Deep Freeze

Proponents of cryonics--they're still out there--hope for another turn at bat

July 10, 2002|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first person Robert Ettinger froze was his mother. The founder of cryonics, the practice of freezing dead bodies for possible resuscitation in the future, stuck her in a vat of liquid nitrogen in 1977.

In a few years Ettinger, now 83, plans to join her, his wife (whom he placed in "cryonic suspension" in 2000) and the 39 other people he's keeping in a deep freeze at his Michigan-based Cryonics Institute. His reason: "Life is more interesting than death."

Like the son of baseball great Ted Williams, who is said to have placed his father in an Arizona cryonics facility, Ettinger believes that one day death will be reversible. That's why he refers to the bodies he's preserving as "patients."

"We expect to revive them," he said. "We don't regard them as irretrievably dead. We regard them as people that we're taking care of and expect to see."

The idea of cryonics has yet to be embraced by the greater public, however. The United States is the only country in the world that offers the service, and it is widely scoffed at in the worlds of medicine and science. Only a handful of companies perform it, and only about 100 people are currently in suspension, waiting for medicine to catch up with their dream of living again.

Why keep freezing bodies when cloning is all the rage?

"Cloning doesn't do anything for you," said Ettinger. "All it does is get you a twin."

Freezing is better, he contends. You get the actual individual, if the person can be revived.

It's of course illegal to freeze someone before he or she has died, Ettinger said, but from a cryogenics standpoint, it would be preferable to preserve a healthy body rather than one that's worn out.

Most suspended "patients" contract with the cryonics companies in advance, the presumption being that a fresh body is better than one that's been sitting around for a few days, though no one seems able to say exactly how dead a body can be before it's considered too late for freezing.

"The only rigid rules we have in the case of people who are not already signed up is we will not accept anybody who has been exhumed or who hasn't been cooled two days," said Ettinger.

Because the timing of death, like advances in science, isn't predictable, most cryonics companies have emergency contact information so they can be reached while the person is in the process of dying or immediately after. The chances of a death occurring in the vicinity of a cryonics facility are slim. There are only four--one in Michigan, one in Arizona and two in Northern California, in San Leandro and Mountain View.

The companies hope for enough lead time to coordinate with local funeral directors so they know how to prepare the body for its imminent freeze. The procedure calls for "washing" the blood of the deceased with a special solution, then treating the body with glycerol to reduce freezer damage before shipping it off to the cryonics lab for suspension.

At the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, the largest such facility with about 50 "patients" currently in suspension, the bodies are kept in vertical cylinders that are filled with liquid nitrogen and cooled to minus 196 degrees Celsius.

The bodies are placed head-down in the cylinders so that if the coolant ever runs low, the brain will be protected. The cost for such a service: $120,000 for a full-body suspension, $50,000 for the head alone.

"It's extremely affordable," Alcor's Dr. Jerry Lemler told CNN in an interview Tuesday, especially if it's funded through life insurance, as many customers (both dead and living) have arranged it to be.

The prices at Ettinger's Cryonics Institute are significantly lower. They do not offer the head-only version, but full-body prices start at $28,000--the same amount the company charged when it first opened up shop in 1976. The lower cost may have something to do with the vats being communal--they can hold as many as 14 bodies--but more likely it's because there's very little overhead to such an operation. The Cryonics Institute has only one paid employee. The building where the bodies are cooled is paid in full. And it only costs about $200 a year to keep a body in liquid nitrogen, even topping off the vats, which they do every week or so.

Of course, there's no guarantee that any of these companies will be able to 1) stay in business long enough for scientists to learn how to reverse the cause of death, 2) deal with the physical deterioration that occurred between death and freezing, 3) undo the damage caused by the freezing process and 4) cure old age, since most cryogenic "patients" are old.

It's an incredibly tall order, one that even cryonics' most optimistic proponents don't expect to be filled for another 20 to 200 years--long after the people who are currently running these companies are dead and, most likely, in storage themselves.

"There's no guarantee about the future whatsoever. We can only do the best we can," said Ettinger, who first came up with the idea of cryonics in 1962, when he self-published the book "The Prospect of Immortality." Interest in the subject grew, and the book was picked up by Doubleday two years later.

It wasn't until 1967 that it was put into practice, however, when Dr. James Bedford offered himself up to be flash-frozen by the now-defunct Cryonics Society of California in the first public cryonic suspension. Bedford's body is now hanging upside-down in a silver tube at Alcor, where Ted Williams' body is said to be housed.

"In a lot of cases in death, there's a sense of loss, but I think cryonics gives us a measure of hope," said Guy Desrosiers, president of the Canadian Cryonics Society. "That's not to say cryonics will be successful, but it shows a positive attitude and a proactive approach. I think one day Mr. Williams may thank his son."

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