Die now, live later (maybe) – US warms to the big chill

To coldly go – Hundreds dream of an immortality that begins with a credit card, ice and a giant metal flask
Click to follow
The Independent US

John Besancon is a retired accountant. For more than 30 years he left for work every day wearing a suit. He would not describe himself as wacky or strange.

Yet Mr Besancon has arranged that, when he dies, his blood will be replaced with preservative, his brain injected with glycerol, and his body frozen in liquid nitrogen. He will then be stored in a giant aluminium flask – until, that is, someone discovers how to bring him back to life.

"I like living," explained 61-year-old Mr Besancon. "I do not want to die. I don't want to stay dead, anyway." Cryonics – the idea of freezing someone who has died in the hope that they can be brought back to life and cured of whatever killed them – has been around since at least the early Sixties. Since then, it has remained a small, closed world, known to the wider public largely through sensational – but often true – reports of heads being frozen and of dogs and cats being put on ice, waiting to be revived by their currently dead owners.

But those involved in the cryonics industry claim that interest is soaring, and that there have never before been as many people preparing to place themselves in the deep freeze. Buoyed by the current debate in the US about stem cell research, therapeutic cloning and other techniques of "repairative medicine", more and more people appear to believe there is a chance they could live again. A total of 90 people are currently "on ice".

The biggest cryonics firm is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, based in Arizona. It has 47 people in suspension and around 530 paid-up "members" who will enter the freezer when they die. There is also a British help group – based, suitably enough, in sprightly and youthful Eastbourne, East Sussex – with around 20 members.

"The numbers are at an all-time high," said Jerry Lemler, the US company's medical director. "Several advances have been made in recent years in areas such as stem cell research, which is part and parcel of cell repair technology. We have seen a rise in membership as a result of this. What was once sci-fi became futuristic, and now that is just on the horizon.

"Since last Saturday alone we have had five new people signing up and paying their money. Now we have 530 members – 10 years ago the number was around 300." The group charges around $120,000 (£85,000) for the full suspension service. According to the company, many of the people who have paid up are not wealthy, but will use their health insurance to meet costs. After paying for the initial body treatment and freezing, the remainder is invested, with the interest being used to pay for future upkeep. But nothing is guaranteed – not even when you are dead. A case that highlights the problems facing an industry beset by financial uncertainty and infighting among the various players, is that of James Bedford.

Dr Bedford is the world's oldest cryonics "patient", and was frozen in 1967. But he almost faced being thawed out too soon several years ago when the money for his storage ran out. Now his body is stored, free of charge, by Alcor. Dr Lemler said it was a "great honour" to have him there.

Meanwhile, the man who started the entire cryonics industry more than 35 years ago still runs a rival cryonics group in Michigan. Robert Ettinger, whose 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality is thought to have laid the groundwork for the cryonics movement, remains adamant that his theory will prove true.

Now aged 82, Mr Ettinger still oversees the Cryonics Institute, which has 38 full-body "patients" in suspension and around 360 members paid-up and waiting to join them. Mr Besancon, the accountant, is one of them. "It is certainly true that our programme has been getting more and more recognition," said Mr Ettinger.

"I would say that the number of members has doubled in the last decade," added Mr Ettinger, whose second wife died 18 months ago and went to join his first wife in suspension.

"I think that all the advances recently in medicine and computer technology have made our position more credible. Of course, it has not caught on as much as I had thought it would when I wrote the book." Despite advances in science, both in theory and in practice, even the cryonicists – as they prefer to be called – admit that their scheme faces tremendous difficulties.

For example, there is currently no way of freezing a body without creating the ice particles that can damage cell membranes. There is also the fundamental problem that even if you can preserve the body in a viable state, how do you actually bring them back to life? And then there is the issue of why a future generation, living on an overpopulated planet, should wish to bring back a number of old, possibly diseased people, even if they could.

But this does not put off the believers. "I don't see that I have anything to lose," said Mr Besancon. "My wife is not a member. She might change her mind, but she has – how would you say it – gone cold on the idea."

And how does Mr Besancon feel about the prospect of immortality without Mrs Besancon? "We only agreed 'Until death us do part'," he said.