Ralph Jones investigates the company trying to take immortality mainstream
As pains in the arse go, dying is a big one. It’s a bit like taking out the bins – you’ve got to do it at some point. So imagine that you could cheat death.
Humans have always lusted after immortality. Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, died of mercury poisoning after eating immortality pills. Shingon Buddhist monks used to mummify themselves while still alive, believing that this would grant them a form of eternal life. But what does the path to immortality look like now?
The first step may be a shift in the way we perceive the ageing of our bodies. Calico, Google’s biotech company, is pouring money into ‘curing ageing’; Facebook funds an award that gives $3m to scientists working to extend human life and, in recent months, there has been a call to classify ageing as a disease, ahead of the 2018 World Health Organisation’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.
This would drastically change the way ageing is treated, concentrating efforts toward prevention over treatment. There is a history of the opposite happening: ‘diseases’ being recategorised as normal behaviour. Masturbation was once treated as an illness. Now it’s an absolute pleasure.
Of the pool of methods used to forever extend one’s life, cryonics has been the most enduring and iconic. The voluntary ‘freezing’ of the body after death, although still considered by most to be the creepy realm of science fiction, is having what can only be described as a bit of a moment.
Behind bulletproof glass in a stone complex in Scottsdale, Arizona, 143 dead people stand frozen in steel containers, their bodies drained of blood and replaced with cryopreservant. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation might sound like the pet project of a Bond villain, but it exists, it’s a real thing. Larry King is in the application process, and Simon Cowell has expressed enthusiasm.
I don't need those people in my life - boring people who are gonna die
History has taught us to be wary of two sets of people: preachers who predict the imminent collapse of the world and those who claim to hold the key to eternal life. Though Alcor makes no promises about reanimating your chilly corpse in the near future, its efforts have been met with a healthy dose of scepticism. Humans being brought back to life is an impossible dream, say cryonic cynics. Alcor points out, however, that human brains have been revived after being clinically dead for eight hours. Its membership department director Diane Cremeens says, “Cryonics is just an extension of emergency medicine. Look how far we advanced since the Sixties. We’ve just got to wait for people to figure it out.”
Surgeons of death
Being an on-call surgeon for Alcor means having to react as quickly as possible – to make sure they’re dead. Once this has been established, the patient is covered in ice and a machine pumps oxygen from the heart to the brain so that it does not shut down entirely. The body is then taken to the operating room, where it should reach 20C before surgery begins in earnest. In order to prevent fatal ice crystals forming, the body is filled with cryoprotectant, with the aim of achieving vitrification: the liquid becoming solid within the body. The patient’s body temperature is then reduced to -130C and the corpse transferred to a dewar flask filled with liquid nitrogen, where it stays at -196C for… quite a long time.
If you don’t want your entire body stored in a massive metal pod, there’s always another option. You can have your head cut off. “I have to cut the trachea, the oesophagus, then all the muscles around,” says Jose Kanshepolsky, a 77-year-old neurosurgeon who has been performing Alcor surgeries for more than 20 years. He is explaining how he decapitates a patient, and is relaying it all to me as though discussing the redecoration of his bathroom. Some 55 per cent of Alcor’s members have chosen to preserve only their head as opposed to their entire body. This is for two principal reasons: first, because it is cheaper ($80,000 plus $705 per year to preserve your head, but $200,000 plus membership for your body); and second, because it is argued that when they are resuscitated they will not want the old and withered body with which they died.
Cremeens explains that once these patients (‘neuros’) are reanimated, cloning will have to take place in order not only to create a new body on to which the head will be attached, but also to produce new blood to be pumped back into the body. “I’m not really sure exactly how that would work,” she says.
Losing their heads
So what kind of person is voluntarily decapitated after death? I speak to Tom Bell, a 51-year-old professor of law from California. Bell is so enthusiastic about immortality you’d assume he was being paid to advertise it, as opposed to funding it to the tune of more than $1,000 every year. “I don’t understand why more people don’t do it,” he says. “Wake up and face the fact that if you don’t do anything, you’re gonna die.” If you like life, he reasons, you should want absolutely loads of it. “I have no shame about saying, ‘Yeah, I’m different,’” says Bell. “I look at other people and say, ‘What’s up with you? You’re not as smart as me, are you?’ When I meet girls I tell them. And sometimes they turn tail and run, and that’s OK. I don’t need those people in my life – boring people who are gonna die.”
Cremeens thinks that it will be 100 years before the first bodies are living a second life. Bell says that he doesn’t necessarily want to live forever – he wants to live until he no longer wants to. Of course, there is no guarantee that the world will be an appealing place for Alcor members, 100 or 300 years after they were preserved. What if Bell doesn’t like what he sees when he wakes up? He is still remarkably cheerful when he says, “I’ll just commit suicide.”
(Digital image: Justin Metz)