Emma Cook meets an undertaker who offers a shot at immortality
WHEN it comes to deciding where your final resting-place should be, undertaker Barry Albin is your man. As well as offering the traditional hearse, horse and carriage affair, he is flexible. Up to now, the traditional funeral business has really only offered two choices - cremation or burial. Whether your final journey is in a pink Cadillac or a black hearse, both are variations on one destination. Mr Albin can now offer a third.

As the sole European agent for the Cryonics Institute, based near Detroit, he is the first and only British undertaker to be trained in its techniques. For those who invest enormous optimism in the advancement of modern science, Mr Albin will preserve and freeze their bodies, then send them off in a hermetically sealed metal pod to Detroit. There they will remain until the technology has been developed, not only to regenerate their frozen bodies, but cure the cause of death as well.

The base for this futuristic operation is Mr Albin's funeral parlour in Rotherhithe, south-east London. F A Albin & Sons is Dickensian, with oak-panelled doors, sepia photographs of past services, sombre piped organ music and a horse-drawn carriage in the car park.

Mr Albin, 44, is the first to admit that cryonic regeneration is a pretty tall order - "in the foreseeable future, anyway. But there are plenty of well-adjusted children walking around now who started off as frozen embryos. Twenty years ago I'd have said that was Frankenstein stuff."

If the concept smacks of science fiction, the process sounds positively medieval. As soon as the body is cooled, Mr Albin will cut one or more arteries to remove all the blood. With a small pump he fills the veins with a mixture of rosewater, water and glycerine. "Basically it's like anti-freeze," he explains. "It stops the insides from freezing up." The deceased is then placed in a container packed "full to the brim" in ice, and shipped to America, to be preserved in a constant flow of liquid nitrogen.

The technique has the most chance of succeeding, the Institute advises, if the cryonicist gets to work as soon as death occurs. Mr Albin is on call for Europe; with easy access to a small private plane and a substantial amount of ice, he can be anywhere within four hours. Once on the ground, he has a specially equipped ambulance in which to perform the "profusion"process en route.

As well as being an adept embalmer, Mr Albin has passed the Institute's anatomical examination. His first practical experience was in Detroit, where he helped to "freeze down" a Parisian, plus an Australian and his pet dog. Now he's just waiting to practise his art.

So far he has 10 customers in Britain and another 30 in Europe, all still very much alive. As Mr Albin points out astutely, "I don't benefit if somebody signs up, only if they die."

One likely candidate is a terminally ill German woman in her mid-nineties. She hopes to join her husband, already cryonically suspended in the Institute's vaults along with another 40 bodies. Others on his list include a whole family, a retired structural engineer and an electrician. According to Mr Albin, Michael Jackson and Woody Allen are both keen on the idea.

The price for this possible glimpse of immortality is pounds 28,000 of which Barry nets pounds 3,000. Customers either save up through an insurance policy or provide a lump sum, payable to the Institute on death. "It's extremely cheap when you think about it in real terms," says Mr Albin, who is keen to emphasise that his interest is not a financial one. "Cryonics is just something I want to be the best at. I'm never going to make a fortune out of this - never, ever."

Dressed smartly in a double-breasted suit and a large, patterned tie, Mr Albin looks more like a chic PR director than an undertaker - and he talks a similar language. "At the end of the day, the only really fundamental sin in this world is when people keep their money under their bed, where it doesn't do anyone any good."

For some his cryonic option no doubt provides untold comfort. "There are people who call me Mr Freeze," he says, "but I see myself as Mr Freedom- of-Choice. You've got to respect everyone's wishes, and in death it's the same."

Curiously, he won't be reserving a bed of ice for himself. "I want to be buried in my back yard where I'm close to home," he says. "One lifetime here is good enough for me."