I've always found the idea of cryonics completely fascinating. The idea of being frozen after death, in the hopes of being revived after advances in medicine have made every illness curable, is like something straight out of a science fiction movie (or a horror film). And Jan. 12, 2016 marks a very special day: It's now been 49 years since James Bedford, the first person to be cryonically frozen, was put on ice. So a celebration is most definitely in order. In fact, Bedford is so important to the cryonics community that the date of his freezing has been called "Bedford Day" ever since.
The word "cryonics" is often confused with "cryogenics," which is actually the study of extremely low temperatures. While the process of cryonics consists of freezing a person in a cryogenic chamber upon their death, that's as far as the connection between the two terms goes. But while that clears up one common question, you probably have a billion more. So what exactly is cryonics all about? Should we all be signing up to be frozen? How likely is it that people who have been frozen will be brought back from the dead anytime soon? And does it really work? Read on, and learn everything you always wanted to know about being cryonically frozen, but were too scared to ask.
How Does Cryonics Work?
According to the Cryonics Institute, "The concept of cryonics was introduced in 1962 by the Founder of the Cryonics Institute, Robert Ettinger, in his landmark book The Prospect of Immortality. Cryonics involves cooling a recently deceased person to liquid nitrogen temperatures in order to keep the body preserved indefinitely." Several companies are incredibly committed to the process of cryonics, with the Cryonics Institute going as far as to say, "Our goal is to keep the patient preserved until future science is able to repair or replace vital tissues and ultimately revive the patient. It might seem like an impossible goal to 'revive' a 'dead' person. However, 'dying' is a process rather than an event." This separation the company makes between "dying" and "dead" is really interesting, and evidences a clear belief that just because a body has been pronounced dead doesn't mean that it's reached the end of life completely.
The Cryonics Institute website also says, "The important thing to understand is that cryonics is a two-stage process: Stage One involves placing a recently deanimated patient into cryonic suspension. Stage Two involves reanimating the patient." If this is getting a little too creepy for you, then don't worry — no one yet knows if Stage Two is possible, or even how far in the future we might begin attempting it.
Has The Process Changed Much Since Its Inception?
In 1991, James Bedford was moved from his original cryonic vessel into a new chamber. In an observation of the process, written for the Alcor Life Extension Founation, James Darwin said that "the skin in [a] former patient had separated from the underlying tissues in spots, sometimes presenting a 'peeling paint' appearance. This phenomenon was not observed to have occurred with [Bedford]."
While this description is pretty gross (read the full story of Bedford's 1991 examination if you like feeling sick), it's curious to hear that overall, his body appeared to be intact, and was not decomposing. This stands in contrast to details of other early cryonics suspensions, which failed frequently as kinks in the process were ironed out. As cryonic techniques have been honed in the years since Bedford was frozen, some of the procedures have changed quite a lot. What once seemed like something of a crude process has been streamlined a great deal. But suspension failures are still a possibility, and bodies not stored in the appropriate way will potentially be harder to revive, should science ever get there.
Has Anyone Ever Been Successfully Brought Back To Life After Being Frozen?
As an article on the BBC website states, "However you look at it, cryonics is a matter of hope and belief in the future. Broad statements crop up on all cryonic organisation websites stating that while 'there are no guarantees' cryopreservation can work, 'technology is always improving.'" No one has been brought back to life yet using this method, but that hasn't stopped people signing up to be frozen. The BBC reports that "around 150 people have had their whole body stored in liquid nitrogen in the United States, while 80 have had just their heads or brains preserved," with a further "1,000 living people who have instructed companies to preserve their bodies after their death."
Are Any Famous People Cryonically Frozen?
One of the biggest urban legends of all time is that Walt Disney is cryonically frozen. But that's a hoax. Disney is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California; not lying in a cryonics facility. Supposedly, the most famous person to be cryonically frozen as of yet is baseball player Ted Williams. Of course, it's possible that there are some secret celebs in those freezers that we just don't know about yet.
Why Doesn't Everyone Sign Up?
Cryonics is a costly procedure, and also a questionable one. As no one yet knows if revival will ever be possible, it could mean spending a lot of money on something that doesn't even work. Though I suppose that as burials go, cryonics is quite a dramatic option.
"OK I'm Interested. How Much Will The Procedure Cost Me?"
Prices vary, and it will depend on you budget and the details of your life insurance policy, should you have one. It's possible to only have your brain frozen if you're short on cash (one day, you could be a talking head in a jar, just like on Futurama). Writing for Discover, Eric Wolff says, "Head-only freezing can cost as little as $80,000, far better than the $150,000 whole-body freezing costs, based on the pricing at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a real life cold-storage non-profit." Other companies may offer lower prices for the procedures.
While the head-only option is still far from being a bargain, it at least provides a cheaper opportunity, should you desperately want to have your wonderful self preserved for the future. And there are ways to finance your deep freeze — in 2013, Kim Suozzi, a 23-year-old with terminal brain cancer, was frozen thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Whether you think the practice creepy or sensible, it looks as though cryonics is here to stay.