A really interesting article by Courtney Weaver in a recent edition of the Financial Times Weekend magazine caught the anthropopper’s attention, not only because of the sheer weirdness of the subject – it’s about cryonics, a technique of freezing dead bodies in the hope that science in the future may find a way to bring the corpses back to life – but because of the astonishing beliefs about life and death processes that lie behind the concept.
As with the arms race and the space race, it is the USA and Russia which are slugging it out in a new and literally very Cold War to establish supremacy in the business of making money from individuals seeking the prospect of future immortality. People who believe in cryonics think that, if a human is cooled to -196C at the time of clinical death, it could be possible to resuscitate them later at a time when science has advanced sufficiently to cure them of old age or illness.
To accommodate people with this belief, the Russians have one of the biggest cryonics companies in the world (KrioRus), which will charge $36,000 to freeze and store a full body or, even more bizarrely, only $12,000 for a head. This has given them a huge price advantage over the leading American company (Alcor), which charges $200,000 for a full body and $80,000 for a head. Needless to say, you get what you pay for and in the cheaper Russian version, its 45 cryopreserved ‘patients’ are stored together in two containers, hanging by their ankles from individual pulleys in liquid nitrogen; while the heads and brains of those cheapskates who have chosen what is called a neuropreservation (head only) are stored on the floor of the same containers. KrioRus also stores more than a dozen deceased pet animals in these containers, which gives you a clue that this may not be the most upmarket kind of operation.
Alcor in the USA, on the other hand, keeps its 141 frozen patients in individual shiny steel capsules in a room with a bullet-proof viewing window and seems to be altogether a more classy kind of set-up that has attracted some famous clients. The head of US baseball star Ted Williams is stored at -196C in a steel flask in Arizona, while PayPal founder Peter Thiel and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil are booked in to be preserved when they shuffle off this mortal coil. News anchor Larry Page is also said to be about to sign up in preparation for when he signs off.
In both countries, though, the process is broadly the same: get to the patient as soon as possible after clinical death has been pronounced and then cool the body over the next few days to bring it down to -196C using nitrogen gas. To quote from Wikipedia, “the stated rationale for cryonics is that people who are considered dead by current legal or medical definitions may not necessarily be dead according to the more stringent information-theoretic definition of death. It is proposed that cryopreserved people might someday be recovered by using highly advanced technology.”
According to Ms. Weaver, people who choose to sign up fall into two categories. “The first consists of people who consider themselves pioneers and would be quite content to come back in the future, knowing no-one and nothing of the current culture. The second is of people scared both by the prospect of death and by the finality that comes of saying goodbye to a loved one for ever, a feeling most skeptics would find it hard not to empathise with.”
Apart from the obvious weirdness, what is really odd is the mindset and belief system that lies behind cryonics. The article quotes two cryonics pioneers, a husband and wife, Maria and Gary from Los Angeles: “If you wait 100 years or 1,000 years or however much time it takes for the technology to develop, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure it’s a split second for your experience. It may be a one in one thousand chance. But the alternative is a 100 per cent guarantee annihilation of your existence. And if you don’t like it in the future, you can always die again if you want to. You can take a peek and say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t. I’d rather be dead’. People think cryonics is freaky but lying in the ground and decomposing isn’t? What’s the difference?“
Evelyn Waugh! thou shouldst be living at this hour – the world hath need of an updated version of The Loved One, your short satirical novel about the American Way of Death.
But perhaps Maria and Gary and all the other people contemplating cryonic preservation for themselves or their loved ones would do even better to read Rudolf Steiner about death and what happens after death. Other cultures, eg the Tibetans in their Book of the Dead, or the Ancient Egyptians in their Book of the Dead have prepared their peoples in the knowledge of how to die and what will happen after death; but in the West, the only person I know who has done this in a really comprehensive way is Rudolf Steiner.
Have a look at Steiner’s Theosophy or his lecture series on Life Between Death and Rebirth. There’s also a useful video on Death & Reincarnation, presented on YouTube by Brian Gray of Rudolf Steiner College.
Maria and Gary and other cryonics fans, save your money and stop worrying – did you but know it, you are in fact already immortal!