SHEFFIELD — It's a small red-brick house just like any other, lost in the suburbs of Sheffield, in central England. The only thing that sets it apart is the yellow-and-green ambulance parked on the gravel driveway — for inside that vehicle, two men and a woman are training in the craft of defeating death itself, on the presumed road to eternity.
Every three months, some 15 members of the Cryonics UK association meet for a weekend around the refrigerated container that will one day be the home of their long hibernation. They have already spent thousands of pounds sterling so that, when the day comes, their bodies will be kept at very low temperature until scientific techniques will allow for them to be "brought back to life."
A blond man has emerged from the ambulance, brandishing for his audience a polystyrene case from which frozen "fumes" are escaping. "Thanks to this carbonic ice, the body temperature rapidly falls to -50 °C," explains Tim Gibson, master of this house.
The cryonic dream was born in the United States in the 1960s with the publication of academic Robert Ettinger's book The Prospect of Immortality. Cryobiology's first step was to freeze without any damage the heart of a frog. Self-proclaimed "cryonicists" immediately proposed to freeze human bodies, without any idea of how to bring them back to life later, which would garner the hatred of genuine cryobiologists.
Since the first cryoconservation in 1967, that of psychology professor James Bedford — who is still "suspended" in a facility in Arizona — several hundred people have given in to the temptation of immortality. Among them are the 270 "patients" who are currently being preserved, without any legal or scientific guarantee that they will brought back, in one of the three cryonic storage facilities in the world: the buildings of the Kriorus company in Moscow, and those of the foundations Alcor and Cryonics Institute in the United States.
Not too soon
For $10,000 to $200,000, you can have your head or your whole body frozen for an undefined period of time. Your pets can join you at no extra cost.
Contract surgeons work to gain access to major blood vessels. At this point, the patient is typically at a temperature of 60°F or lower. (photos: Alcor)
Like some 2,000 people around the world, the 35 British members of Cryonics UK have applied to join the quest for immortality. They must however wait until they are pronounced dead. It's indeed illegal to cryonize people alive, although some think it would increase the chances of waking up. But such an act would be considered murder.
But once the death certificate is issued, the association can legally do as it pleases with the body, provided that the family of the deceased authorizes it.
With a calm smile on her face, Victoria Stevens, 38, explains that she managed to convince her husband and her two children that death was not irreversible. "When we love life, there's no shame in wanting to make it last longer"
Former engineer Mike Carter shares her point of view, and has become one of the cornerstones of the association since his retirement. "I know that the chances of being resuscitated are very slim. But apart from a bit a money for my children, there's nothing to lose. But you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket!"
A technician prepares the cryoprotectant solution perfusion circuit. The wires behind the plastic tubing are used for electronic monitoring and data collection.
Cryonics UK is not a service provider, but merely a cooperative of mutual aid. Its job is to take care voluntarily of transporting the frozen bodies to the United States. "Whenever one of our members is about to die, we hurry to his house with the ambulance to be there as soon as possible," explains Carter. In such cases, a handful of volunteers put the body "on standby," which will prevent it from deteriorating during the transport across the Atlantic.
Since they have no medical qualifications, the volunteers must follow a very specific and precise set of instructions: inject an anticoagulant, replace the blood by an antifreeze substance, place the body in a container with carbon dioxide at -78 degrees C.
"The most important thing is to complete the intervention in the six hours that follow clinical death," Gibson says.
The patient is now transferred from the operating room to the cooldown facility, where cooling to -130°C takes place under computer control.
In the minds of cryonicists, death isn't an event but a process that must be suspended as early as possible to allow for it to be reversed as soon as science allows. Tim Gibson, who has already made five interventions after training at Alcor, finishes his demonstration in Sheffield with the dummy and asks his "students": "Who wants to try it first?"
Some of them have been training for years, but for most, manipulating needles and performing perfusions is a first. Their movements are hesitant and their awkwardness is plain to see. In a recent report, the BBC mentioned the word "amateur."
"Well of course we're amateurs! Not enough people die for us to gain experience," Gibson says ironically.
He keeps the materials, purchased with the subscription fee of the members, in his garage. This includes an ice bath tub, stretchers, perfusions and a briefcase with a dozen different medicines. As for the rest, they make do with bargains spotted on the Internet (for stethoscopes, blood pressure monitors and needles) and duct tape to keep together the tubes that don't slot well.
After their training, the members of the association sit together around a table with a plate of fish and chips, and confess the marginalization of their community. "I don't talk about it because it always ends with the same silly questions," says a tall man from Middlesborough, on the east coast of England.
Containers are finally immersed in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196°C for long-term care.
American edge, French laws
The situation couldn't be more different on the other side of the Atlantic. "There's been a change in how cryonics is perceived by the public and the media, the tone to speak about it is more serious," says Max More, an American futurist and CEO of Alcor.
New preservation techniques have earned organizations like his a reputation of professionalism that they lacked for a long time. Even though being able to reanimate the patients is still a gamble, they can now at least freeze the bodies without damaging the tissues. And from Red Sox baseball legend Ted Williams (who died in 2002) to the three Oxford professors who came out of the "cryonic closet" last summer, the number of people choosing to have their bodies frozen is growing. The community wants to believe that the scandals that once tarnished its image (failure of storage facilities, bodies that were defrosted for lack of money, suspicions of euthanasia) are behind them.
To help improve its image, the community also progressively introduced a more positive lexical field. For instance, when a "patient" dies, they say he is "de-animated". When the body is plunged in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees C, they say it is "preserved."
In the United States, the appearance of specialized life-insurance policies have helped to make cryonics accessible to those who may not be millionaires. "For a little more than $1,000 a year, you can now buy yourself a chance to see the year 3,000," says Rudi Hoffman, the pioneer and leader in the field in the U.S., with about one thousands clients.
Back in Sheffield, Mike Carter confesses his annoyance when people keep "smiling weirdly" when you mention cryonics. One of the association members in fact reveals that he didn't talk to his family about it for fear of their reaction, and entrusted an attorney with the execution of his will.
"People often ask me what I'd do once I'm resurrected in an unknown world, without my family," says Gibson, whose wife doesn't share his passion for cryonics. His answer to that question is always the same: "If all my family died today, I'd keep on living. Where's the difference?"
Despite its modest means, Cryonics UK is a model in Europe. German cryonicists even came all the way to Britain to learn from them, hoping to be able to create a similar service in their home country.
In France, it is forbidden by law. As of 2006, only burial and cremation are authorized after death. The decision was taken after the unbelievable story of a couple who were cryonized in 1984 and 2000 in their mansion. Their son wanted to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but was stopped in his attempt by a power failure that defrosted his parents' bodies before the procedure started.
"The best solution for French people who want to be cryonized is to travel to Florida just before they die," says Roland Missonnier. The now 68 year-old founded the association Cryonics de France in the 1960s, which was one of the most active in the world at the time.
He is planning on reviving his organization this year with a handful of French people who, like him, are registered with the Cryonics Institute. But he's up against the French legislation, which he considers to be a "liberty killer.",
American and British cryonicists can't fathom France's laws. "How can that be forbidden?" asks one of Tom Gibson's students. "Anybody can do what they want with their own body!"