This is a feature I wrote for Marie Claire magazine about cryonics… I can’t seem to find the PDF so will have to go with my rough copy (please excuse/ point-out-so-I-can-correct typos!)
For a woman who’s been planning her death since she was 17, Ellen
Styles is surprisingly cheeful. She looks pretty good on it too. Slim
and sporty, dressed in a pastel top and pink jeans with little
crystals sewn around the hem. She is 22 but looks younger. Her
complexion rosy, her hair glossy. She does not appear either morbid or
unwell. Still, since her teens she’s been intricately arranging her
Not out of fear, she insists, handing me a cup of tea in the kitchen of her Maaclesfield home, “for me it’s about a love of life”. Then she explains exactly how when she and her husband David, 27, pass away they’re going to have their bodies frozen until scientists can bring them back.
The story of cryonics starts around 1773 with Benjamin Franklin
daydreaming he could be “immersed with a few friends in a cask of
Madeira” until science could unferment him. Two hundred years later
Robert Ettinger’s novel The Prospect of Immortality (1962), sketched
out a more sophisticated plan for cooling, and maintaining, a dead
body in liquid nitrogen waiting for science to wake it up. But it was
Even Cooper who in 1964 set up the first Life Extension society,
offering the service for real. In 1967 Dr James Bedford (A University
of California psychology professor) became the first body frozen by
Alcor. Now there are three cryonics companies – Alcor and The Cryonics
Institute in the US plus KrioRus in Russia
Cryonics has been around half a decade but suddenly it’s enjoying a
renaissance. Celebrities like Simon Cowell, Larry King and Britney
Spears are rumoured to have signed up. Between 2003 and April this
year Alcor saw membership jump from 661 to 967. Outside the US and
Canada, the UK is cryonics 3rd biggest fan. It ain’t cheap – having
your body frozen costs $200,000.00 with Alcor, or $80,000, if you just
get your head done (which they think’s fine because that’s where the
vital matter is). Given the cost, craziness and creepyness involved
it’s a mystery why it’s caught on.
“We live in a culture which is very unhappy with the realities of
aging and death”, explains author Catherine Mayer. Her book Amortality
explores the idea we’re living in an ageless time. “Everywhere we go
there’s this huge clamour of advertising slogans and cosmetics
promising to revitalise and revive us and this celebrity culture which
is entirely age-defying”, she tells me, “it’s made us obsessed with
turning the clock back”. Science has become a kind of quasi religion
people are looking to en mass to cure aging and death. “Cryonics”,
says Mayer, “is one of those cures. We’ve got a rising set of
generations that don’t believe death is necessary”.
“I am the kind of person who likes to change things I don’t like, so
why not try to change dying?” Victoria Stevens is a biologist in her
thirties. She wears a silver braclet that shows she’s a signed-up
cryonicist. Although she’s only getting her head done. At first her
family were shocked but now, she says, they are used to the idea.
She’d signed her partner and two young children too. “Life-spans are
increasing all the time”, she points out, “I find the idea of saying
people should die at a certain age repugnant.” Her intention is to
“There is so much to learn and experience, more than I could ever fit
in eighty years or so. Sometimes I catch myself thinking I’ll do the
physics degree or learn the piano much later. But that is silly.
Cryonics is a gamble. Having said that, I think there is a reasonably
good chance it’ll work”.
“I’ve always been interested in longevity”, cryonicist Adele Cosgrove
Bray, 48, agrees, “I’ve got so many interests there’s no way I could
fit it all into one lifetime. If I can live forever – why not?” A
sci-fi writer from the Wirrel she fantasises about re-starting her
life in the future. She is so optimistic about science’s advances
she’s had her cats and dogs DNA archived so they can be ‘reanimated’
too. “If you come back you’ll be circus freaks, “ tuts her husband
Richard, (not a cryonics convert) “It won’t be racism it’ll be
time-ism. You’ll be treated like Village Of The Damned”.
For couple planning on living forever, David and Ellen seem pretty
unassuming. There’s no cryogenic freezing capsules, lab coats, or
futurama in their semi. But amongst the Oasis and Pall Weller CDs
on the shelves of thick stacks of science, philosophy and sci-fi books.
David was a cryonicist when they met, but “the fact he was weird” was why Ellen
liked him. When she looked into cryonics she realised it made sense;
The perfect way to buy more time, she says, “Cryonics has change the way I
think. I don’t think about the end of my life”. Instead she can carry on sailing, reading, climbing, playing the piano and travelling forever. When she comes back, tells me grinning, she’ll
add space-travel to that list. “I’ve got time to do everything I want
to do”, she beams.
The only thing she can’t do is Sky Dive because
then her life insurance would be void – and that’s how her and David
are paying for this: A life insurance costing £6/month each – payable
at the end of their lives to The Cryonics Institute.
Cryonics promise of immortality appeals to a very modern narcissism.
Once people made art, wrote novels, had kids and dreamed of
re-incarnation as ways to live on; with cryonics we can carry on
forever as ourselves. “It’s a second chance at life”, says David, who I notice
has two portraits of himself on the living room wall. “There are many
people if you asked them the question ‘do you want to live forever’,
they’d say no. Frankly I feel sad for them”.
An atheist, Ellen doesn’t worry suspended animation will preclude her
from heaven or hell. Instead it gives her comfort to know when David
dies she’ll see him again. Their marriage vows weren’t ’till death do
us part’, but ‘as long as life and love endure’. “It gives you a
different perspective on a ‘long term realationship’”, David grins.
“I’ve done what I can to avoid dying permenetly”, smiles Ellen as her
18 month-old Alexander toddles in, jamming a handful of mini-sausages
in his mouth. They’re planning on having him frozen too.
Amongst all this lust for life and wild optimism one thing that’s not
clear is exactly how it works. “To be honest”, admits Ellen, “The
science bit doesn’t fascinate me”.
OK are you ready for the science bit? The crux of cryonics is that
death is relative. Not a single event, but a process. Not an on/off
switch but more like a dimmer – with a grey area between legal and
medical death. When legal death is pronounced cryonicists jumps in to
pause the ‘dying process’ – by putting the body literally on-ice.
First they pump in cryoprotectants, designed to protect the cellular
structure, minimise ischemic damage (damage caused by loss of blood
flow to the brain) and damage caused by the freezing process before
placing the body liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees in the hope when
”patients” are defrosted scientists will be able to cure their
“Once one realises that death is a process that takes time, rather
than an instataneous event, it is a no-brainer that one would want to
have the best chance of being restored to good health”, explains
Professor Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge University. A skinny man with a
thick beard he has been signed-up to cryonics for a decade. He heads
up a department called SENS, working to combat aging and age-related
ill health. (Bar the beard, he looks very good on it). He thinks if we
live long enough science will let us live forever; if he doesn’t live
long enough to see that he wants to be frozen until then.
It all sounds rather high-tech, slick and futuristic doesn’t it. Until
you see Cryonics UK (CUK). There’s no cryonic storage facilities in
Britain so CUK prepares and transports members for storage abroad. I
imagined CUK as a space-age hospital, actually it’s a converted NHS
ambulance Tim Gibson keeps in his front-yard in Sheffield. Tim, a
scruffy blonde windsurfer in a hoodie is CUK’s emergency service. When a UK cryonicist dies Tim
–self-funded, self-taught – jumps in the ambulance with “whoever we
can grab”. His team of novices have never actually performed a
suspension on anyone except their plastic practice dummy ‘Bob’.
The back of the ambulance looks like a seventies caravan, with
wood-effect fittings and red-leather chairs. There’s a large big blue
plastic bath the body goes in, before Tim sets off he fills it with
ice. Tim’s got an ice-machine in the garage but it makes ice so slowly
“the simplist thing is to stop off at Tescos on the way and buy it”.
There’s a suitcase crammed with fifteen jiffy bags, each for a
different stage of a process. First the body is stablilised, then the
blood washed out and cryoprotectant medications pumped in. ”It’s
fairly basic”, says Tim, “it’s just plumbing”. The most important
thing’s to look after the brain, supposedly the key cellular structure
where memory, personality and identity are stored. Amongst Tim’s kit
is a drill to bore a hole in the skull so he can peak in and “moniter
how their brain’s doing”. He’s also got a saw – for the head. On the
ambulance walls are corkboards with instructions pinned up. “The guy
who wrote them is dyslexic”, says Tim, “So they’re a little
nonsensical in places”.
“Then you pack them in dry ice and ship them out”, says Tim, taking me
to his garage where there’s a huge orange storage container. I leant into it to have a look and recoil: “Urgh what’s that smell?”, I gag. Tim laughs “death”.
When they land in America the bodies are shipped to warehouses and placed in huge shiny
silver cylinders filled with -196 degree liquid nitrogen. There are
four corpses in each container with a column running up centre holding
the heads. A few years ago ex Alcor employee Larry Johnson write a
sensationally gruesome book detailing horror stories about the storage
facility. Like that he’d seen a technition swing a wrench into former
baseball great Ted Williams’ frozen head. Alcor later elicited an
apology from him in which he admitted he didn’t see this first hand.
Will cryonics work? Professor Steve Jones, a genetics expert from
University College London, isn’t convinced: “There’s a lot of
misunderstanding over this – cells have been frozen and revived, as
have smaller items such as sperm and eggs, but the fact is, when
you’re dead, you’re dead. Your brain doesn’t work, your cells change
instantly – there are all sorts of macabre evidence of what a one-way
street it is.” No-one’s solved the problem of the damage done to cells
when you freeze them or the toxicity of the cryo-preservation
Is cryonics misinformed or, as some have claimed, is it a malicious
confidence trick? Catherine Mayer suggests a motivation less sinister:
“Cryonicists are gripped by a mortal fear of dying. They’re so scared
of dying they’re kidding themselves”.
Cryonics is comforting. It puts grief on ice. It allows you to
intellectualise death. Ellen won’t die. She’ll be in “a kind of
stillness”, thinks David. “You’re doing something about death to make
it less painful”, says Tim.
Yet since having children, Tim has started having doubts. “Having children started to put negative thoughts into my mind to the point where I thought I ought to stop. It made me think what
I’m doing is wrong, unnatural. Life is a process, I’m insignificant,
I’m supposed to go”.
Cryonics, he worries, could be “putting effort
into something that has such a low probability of success you’re
wasting your life”.