Society

Afterlife On Ice: Inside The World Of Cryonics

The American-invented dream of averting the finality of death by freezing one's body is a world unto its own. Now it's spreading to the UK, France and beyond.

In case of emergency, freeze...
In case of emergency, freeze...
Maxime Vaudano

SHEFFIELD — It's a small red-brick house just like any other, lost in the suburbs of Sheffield, in central England. The only thing that sets it apart is the yellow-and-green ambulance parked on the gravel driveway — for inside that vehicle, two men and a woman are training in the craft of defeating death itself, on the presumed road to eternity.

Every three months, some 15 members of the Cryonics UK association meet for a weekend around the refrigerated container that will one day be the home of their long hibernation. They have already spent thousands of pounds sterling so that, when the day comes, their bodies will be kept at very low temperature until scientific techniques will allow for them to be "brought back to life."

A blond man has emerged from the ambulance, brandishing for his audience a polystyrene case from which frozen "fumes" are escaping. "Thanks to this carbonic ice, the body temperature rapidly falls to -50 °C," explains Tim Gibson, master of this house.

The cryonic dream was born in the United States in the 1960s with the publication of academic Robert Ettinger's book The Prospect of Immortality. Cryobiology's first step was to freeze without any damage the heart of a frog. Self-proclaimed "cryonicists" immediately proposed to freeze human bodies, without any idea of how to bring them back to life later, which would garner the hatred of genuine cryobiologists.

Since the first cryoconservation in 1967, that of psychology professor James Bedford — who is still "suspended" in a facility in Arizona — several hundred people have given in to the temptation of immortality. Among them are the 270 "patients" who are currently being preserved, without any legal or scientific guarantee that they will brought back, in one of the three cryonic storage facilities in the world: the buildings of the Kriorus company in Moscow, and those of the foundations Alcor and Cryonics Institute in the United States.

Not too soon

For $10,000 to $200,000, you can have your head or your whole body frozen for an undefined period of time. Your pets can join you at no extra cost.

Contract surgeons work to gain access to major blood vessels. At this point, the patient is typically at a temperature of 60°F or lower. (photos: Alcor)

Like some 2,000 people around the world, the 35 British members of Cryonics UK have applied to join the quest for immortality. They must however wait until they are pronounced dead. It's indeed illegal to cryonize people alive, although some think it would increase the chances of waking up. But such an act would be considered murder.

But once the death certificate is issued, the association can legally do as it pleases with the body, provided that the family of the deceased authorizes it.

With a calm smile on her face, Victoria Stevens, 38, explains that she managed to convince her husband and her two children that death was not irreversible. "When we love life, there's no shame in wanting to make it last longer"

Former engineer Mike Carter shares her point of view, and has become one of the cornerstones of the association since his retirement. "I know that the chances of being resuscitated are very slim. But apart from a bit a money for my children, there's nothing to lose. But you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket!"

A technician prepares the cryoprotectant solution perfusion circuit. The wires behind the plastic tubing are used for electronic monitoring and data collection.

Cryonics UK is not a service provider, but merely a cooperative of mutual aid. Its job is to take care voluntarily of transporting the frozen bodies to the United States. "Whenever one of our members is about to die, we hurry to his house with the ambulance to be there as soon as possible," explains Carter. In such cases, a handful of volunteers put the body "on standby," which will prevent it from deteriorating during the transport across the Atlantic.

Since they have no medical qualifications, the volunteers must follow a very specific and precise set of instructions: inject an anticoagulant, replace the blood by an antifreeze substance, place the body in a container with carbon dioxide at -78 degrees C.

"The most important thing is to complete the intervention in the six hours that follow clinical death," Gibson says.

The patient is now transferred from the operating room to the cooldown facility, where cooling to -130°C takes place under computer control.

In the minds of cryonicists, death isn't an event but a process that must be suspended as early as possible to allow for it to be reversed as soon as science allows. Tim Gibson, who has already made five interventions after training at Alcor, finishes his demonstration in Sheffield with the dummy and asks his "students": "Who wants to try it first?"

Some of them have been training for years, but for most, manipulating needles and performing perfusions is a first. Their movements are hesitant and their awkwardness is plain to see. In a recent report, the BBC mentioned the word "amateur."

"Well of course we're amateurs! Not enough people die for us to gain experience," Gibson says ironically.

He keeps the materials, purchased with the subscription fee of the members, in his garage. This includes an ice bath tub, stretchers, perfusions and a briefcase with a dozen different medicines. As for the rest, they make do with bargains spotted on the Internet (for stethoscopes, blood pressure monitors and needles) and duct tape to keep together the tubes that don't slot well.

After their training, the members of the association sit together around a table with a plate of fish and chips, and confess the marginalization of their community. "I don't talk about it because it always ends with the same silly questions," says a tall man from Middlesborough, on the east coast of England.

Containers are finally immersed in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196°C for long-term care.

American edge, French laws

The situation couldn't be more different on the other side of the Atlantic. "There's been a change in how cryonics is perceived by the public and the media, the tone to speak about it is more serious," says Max More, an American futurist and CEO of Alcor.

New preservation techniques have earned organizations like his a reputation of professionalism that they lacked for a long time. Even though being able to reanimate the patients is still a gamble, they can now at least freeze the bodies without damaging the tissues. And from Red Sox baseball legend Ted Williams (who died in 2002) to the three Oxford professors who came out of the "cryonic closet" last summer, the number of people choosing to have their bodies frozen is growing. The community wants to believe that the scandals that once tarnished its image (failure of storage facilities, bodies that were defrosted for lack of money, suspicions of euthanasia) are behind them.

To help improve its image, the community also progressively introduced a more positive lexical field. For instance, when a "patient" dies, they say he is "de-animated". When the body is plunged in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees C, they say it is "preserved."

In the United States, the appearance of specialized life-insurance policies have helped to make cryonics accessible to those who may not be millionaires. "For a little more than $1,000 a year, you can now buy yourself a chance to see the year 3,000," says Rudi Hoffman, the pioneer and leader in the field in the U.S., with about one thousands clients.

Back in Sheffield, Mike Carter confesses his annoyance when people keep "smiling weirdly" when you mention cryonics. One of the association members in fact reveals that he didn't talk to his family about it for fear of their reaction, and entrusted an attorney with the execution of his will.

"People often ask me what I'd do once I'm resurrected in an unknown world, without my family," says Gibson, whose wife doesn't share his passion for cryonics. His answer to that question is always the same: "If all my family died today, I'd keep on living. Where's the difference?"

Despite its modest means, Cryonics UK is a model in Europe. German cryonicists even came all the way to Britain to learn from them, hoping to be able to create a similar service in their home country.

In France, it is forbidden by law. As of 2006, only burial and cremation are authorized after death. The decision was taken after the unbelievable story of a couple who were cryonized in 1984 and 2000 in their mansion. Their son wanted to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but was stopped in his attempt by a power failure that defrosted his parents' bodies before the procedure started.

"The best solution for French people who want to be cryonized is to travel to Florida just before they die," says Roland Missonnier. The now 68 year-old founded the association Cryonics de France in the 1960s, which was one of the most active in the world at the time.

He is planning on reviving his organization this year with a handful of French people who, like him, are registered with the Cryonics Institute. But he's up against the French legislation, which he considers to be a "liberty killer.",

American and British cryonicists can't fathom France's laws. "How can that be forbidden?" asks one of Tom Gibson's students. "Anybody can do what they want with their own body!"

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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