Day of the frozen dead

When the residents of a small town in Colorado found a body entombed in dry ice in a shed, they were so horrified they decided to hold a festival in his name. Fiona Sibley chills out at the celebrations
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The Independent US

"I feel like I'm in a David Lynch movie," says Bryan Brown, the mayor of Nederland, which is nestled 8,000ft up in the Rocky Mountains. Life in the small Colorado town was always redolent of back-woods America: undramatic headlines in the local newspaper, The Mountain Ear, refer to record fish catches and plans to prevent forest fires. But, in the folkloric vein of unremarkable provincial communities, Nederland awoke one day to find it was sitting astride its very own Twin Peaks-ian legend.

A ritual has been born in the town, based on events that have only just settled into the collective consciousness of its 1,500 residents. Held in the bleak midwinter of March, Nederland's new annual festival centres around its eldest resident, a Norwegian man named Bredo Morstoel.

All agree on Morstoel's birth date - 28 February 1900 - but it is over his age that controversy reigns. The disagreement is between those who believe that Morstoel died from a heart attack in 1989, and others who maintain that his corpse is only temporarily dead, frozen in suspension until technology emerges that will restore him to vitality.

Since 1993, Morstoel's home has been a tin-walled woodshed on Nederland's snowy hillside. He was laid here by his grandson Trygve Bauge, an eccentric fellow whose passionate advocacy for the science of life extension brought him to Nederland to set up a cryonics institute. His dream was to sell frozen suspension to those reluctant to accept death as the final ending of life.

Bauge's entrepreneurial efforts were morbidly amateurish. He lacked the funds to preserve his grandfather using a hi-tech liquid nitrogen flask, as favoured by other cryonicists. Instead, Bauge fashioned a crude DIY frozen mausoleum out of plywood encasing a steel coffin, insulated by cardboard boxes packed with dry ice.

It is in honour of Morstoel's peculiar predicament, trapped in an icy limbo between death and the afterlife, that Nederland now celebrates an annual Frozen Dead Guy Day.

The town only became aware of its chilling legacy when Bauge, an illegal immigrant, was deported back to Norway in 1994, leaving his elderly, distressed mother Aud Morstoel behind. She soon let the cat out of the bag about the two bodies in the woodshed - Bauge having managed to attract one paying customer to keep his grand-father company. The grisly truth was gradually uncovered.

Robin Beeck, a local film-maker, has spent five years capturing the story through interviews for his feature documentary, Grandpa's Still in the Tuff Shed!, which was supported by Michael Moore of Fahrenheit 9/11 fame. "Initially, the town was freaked out about having a frozen body in their back yard," she says. "After Trygve was deported, his mother Aud was still living in their house in Nederland. She said off-handedly to a newspaper reporter, 'I'm so concerned that the bodies will melt!' Well, the town went completely nuts. The police were, like, 'What bodies, what bodies!' Police cars, the mayor, and the media went racing up to the shed to see for themselves, and there, in a stainless-steel coffin, covered in chains and 800 pounds of dry ice, was the frozen body of Bredo Morstoel, Trygve's grandfather."

Clay Evans, a showmanly newspaperman working for the Daily Camera in nearby Boulder, was one of the first people on the scene. He recalls "the weirdness of hanging around after nightfall on a chilly mountainside as a small collection of people waited for the 'tomb' to be opened. Inside, it was both mundane and bizarre; grandpa's stainless-steel chain-wrapped coffin, like something from a sci-fi movie, and Al Campbell's much more humble wrappings - a green sleeping bag."

Desperate to get rid of the bodies, the small local administration moved into moral mode, adding a new law to its rule book banning the storage of frozen flesh on any property. As a Nederland resident, Teresa Warren, puts it: "Essentially, if you were to take that literally, it would mean you were breaking the law if you had a frozen turkey in the deep-freeze." But "Grandpa Bredo", as he had come to be known, stayed put: not least because he predated the town's oddball new law, but also because there was a stream of sympathy for Aud Morstoel, who had delivered an angry, impassioned outburst against the town government, making its officials look heavy-handed and insincere. It was a victory for Grandpa Bredo, the deported Bauge, and, it was proclaimed, for the rights of "the frozen dead".

The town's residents, meanwhile, were beginning to enjoy their new-found celebrity, and the voyeuristic tourists it brought with it. Al Campbell was soon extracted from the woodshed and flown back to Chicago, where he was cremated, leaving Grandpa Bredo as the sole surviving member of Nederland's temporarily dead, and the new symbol of the mortal efforts of the living to transcend death.

From his exile in Norway, Trygve Bauge found supporters, including local businesses, willing to continue maintaining the body in the woodshed. A local firm of "planetary ecologists", Delta Tech (whose other business interests include a pet cactus service), was hired to replace the dry-ice every three weeks, a duty carried out by Bo Schaffer, who acts as the unofficial watch over Grandpa Bredo's coffin and brings a fir branch every Christmas. The dry ice needs to maintain a frosty environment of minus 60F, or the body is likely to thaw.

"If we don't do it, we'll kill Trygve's grandfather, and we don't want that," says Schaffer in Beeck's film as he calmly tends to the coffin. Bauge spent an initial $50,000 freezing his grandfather, and between $6,000 and $7,400 every year since.

However, it seems that Grandpa Bredo's fate was in question in the winter of 1995, when strong winds almost destroyed his lean-to. A local manufacturer, Tuff Shed, donated a new home, which stands emblazoned with the logo of a Denver radio station, 103.5 The Fox. Residents and visitors contributed to Delta Tech's Grandpa Bredo Dry Ice Fund. Grandpa had become a cultural icon, and people began to see dollars.

But Grandpa Bredo's fame only really took off in 2002, when Teresa Warren, who runs the Off Her Rocker antiques shop, suggested a festival. "A few members of the Nederland Chamber of Commerce were trying to organise a winter festival. We are at 8,200ft elevation, with a ski area 10 minutes away, so we offer a playground for winter-sports enthusiasts. It was my husband who urged us to take advantage of our resident Frozen Dead Guy that the world seemed to know about. If you ever travel outside the area and tell people where you are from, most will ask, 'Isn't that where that frozen dead guy is?' So we decided to go ahead.

"The first year, when the wind was blowing 80mph and it was frigidly cold, a crowd of 1,500 came to watch the coffin races. I think that's when I knew we had a winner of a festival."

Last weekend's Frozen Dead Guy Day was the fourth annual celebration, a weekend of graveyard humour that cut close to the bone with a programme of spooks, stiffs and sub-zero activities. The highlight of the weekend was the coffin race, presided over by a top-hatted director, a kind of disrespectful Wacky Races between custom-made toboggans, along a slushy course that ran over Grandpa Bredo's Tuff Shed roof.

Bo Schaffer, Grandpa's iceman, ushers visitors into Morstoel's frozen shed on a $35-a-pop champagne tour under cover of darkness. Similarly, Grandpa's Blue Ball (where "corpses" danced with pallid expressions), the Ice Queen Contest, the Grandpa Bredo Lookalike Contest and the Polar Plunge (involving a naked leap into an ice-cold reservoir) were hugely popular. Also, in all-American finger-lickin' tradition, there were rib-eating and oyster-eating contests. Frozen Dead Guy merchandise was for sale everywhere, attracting cult customers of the Rocky Horror persuasion.

"The festival is great for business," says Warren. "It's normally a slow time for retail, so an extra 5,000 people in town equates to the biggest shopping weekend of the year. And most of the town is behind the festival. In such a small town, you have many residents who like their peace and quiet and don't want any fuss going on. There are a few who find it distasteful, but usually those are people who didn't live here when Grandpa's body was found and didn't live through the original events."

Trygve Bauge had drifted into Nederland on a liberal tide, attracted by the remoteness of the town and its distance from cultural norms. In the Seventies, Nederland was a destination for hippies in following an idyllic dream of breathing mountain air and living the good life, accompanied by drugs, music and nature's extremes of landscape and climate. Elton John, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Michael Jackson flocked to the reclusive setting of Nederland's Caribou recording studio, and mixed with locals at the Pioneer Inn. In this marginal place, outsiders who stayed on, like Bauge, ruffled few feathers, finding a community that accepted alternative ways of living.

Nederland's stance on its "Grandpopsicle" is surprisingly free of moral judgment or irony, but it feeds opportunistically only upon the currency of its new legend. When, in 2002, Nederland's mayor offered asylum to a frozen French couple, the campaign found little backing. And, while the residents in the film claim a tender attachment to Grandpa Bredo, there's little evidence of cryonics catching on.

"This is the way it always goes," says Evans. "At the beginning, people were screaming, yelling, it's unethical, it's immoral, then gradually you move to acceptance, and then promotion. Make money at it. It's the American way." And Grandpa's popularity shows no sign of waning. In January, NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno featured Grandpa in its contest for the most interesting person in Colorado. "We were supposed to win the competition, or rather Grandpa was," Warren says. "But because of the untimely death of Johnny Carson, the executives decided it might be viewed in bad taste."

Despite the celebrity he has gained in death, it seems that Bredo Morstoel was probably never a cryonics advocate. "He died unexpectedly, and before I had taken time to ask him if he wanted to be suspended," Bauge says. This is probably for the best, as Robin Beeck explains delicately: "Unfortunately, Bredo has defrosted on several occasions, so the likelihood of him ever being 'reborn' is minute. We have a DVD of the film in the Tuff Shed in case he does wake up. Imagine if he was reborn and saw all that has happened since he died."

But, Beeck concludes: "We love the story of how a small American town changed. The whole town has basically embraced the festival. It would be a sad day in Nederland if Grandpa was ever removed."

'Grandpa's Still in the Tuff Shed!' is touring British documentary film festivals until 29 March (