At the entrance of the Cryonics Institute, in wooden frames, they gazed at us: photographs in two neat rows. Many of the elderly had chosen pictures of themselves from the prime of life—the way they wanted to be remembered. NASA has something similar at their headquarters, a portrait wall honoring astronauts. The people in the Institute’s portraits are not astronauts, though. They are time travelers.
With dreams of immortality, a math professor, Robert Ettinger, started the Cryonics Institute in 1976. In an unassuming building in Clinton Township, Michigan, the dead are frozen in liquid nitrogen until future generations develop the technology to revive them.
I had come to the institute with my sister (and health care proxy) to explore the possibility of being frozen just after death. I’ve always wanted to see the distant future, and I’ve always been a betting man.
Caretaker Andy Zawaki met us at the entrance and showed us around. He pointed to one of the portraits. “That lady is Mr. Ettinger’s mother,” he stated. “She was the first patient. The second patient was Mr. Ettinger’s wife.” Ettinger himself became patient 106 just three years ago, at the age of 92. “He got sick,” explained Andy. “He just kinda wore out. They hired nurses to sit with him around the clock so we would know the moment he died and start the cooling.”
Along with the Ettingers were other families, and even their pets: dogs, cats, parrots, a hamster named Leapy. In another part of the facility were fireproof file cabinets filled with the patients’ possessions. Like pharaohs bundled into well-stocked tombs, everyone planned to resume their lives exactly where they had left off.
“You know,” Andy said, “people talk about the end of the world coming. Well, the end of the world comes every day for the people that die, 'cause once you die, nothing matters anymore. It’s game over, man. There’s a friend of mine who’s frozen now. He had a stroke. He was only 77. He used to say that when you get buried you know you’re gonna rot, and if you get cremated, you’re gonna be ashes, but when you’re signed up to be frozen, you don’t know. There’s just the little bit of a possibility of hope, and for my friend, that changed his whole outlook.”
Twenty-eight thousand dollars buys a place inside one of the massive metal vats called cryostats. Each cryostat holds six patients, upside-down, swathed in sleeping bags. Encased in white insulation, the cryostats look like mushroom stems growing out of bare concrete. Beside them is a small row of cubbyholes, numbered for anonymity, where loved ones can leave flowers.
The laboratory has a science fair quality to it. Everything has been assembled by hand. “A lot of people come in,” said Andy, “and tell me they expected lights and dials and people monitoring, but we want it as simple as possible because we don’t want to rely on all that stuff.”
Andy lives at the institute. He sleeps on a fold-out couch. Sometimes his girlfriend drives in from Standish to visit. “It’s nothing great and fun to be here 24 hours,” he shrugged, “but it is convenient for emergencies. People say ghosts and this and that, but I never get a strange feeling in here. People say, ‘Aren’t ya afraid of dead people?’ I say, ‘I’m afraid of live people.’ Live people can hurt ya. We’ve had threats come in. Some people say, ‘You’re playing God.’ I say, ‘You play God anytime you take a cancer treatment.’ I don’t think it’s playing God. I think it’s just an extension of medicine. These people who die on the operating table for two minutes, drown for an hour, or freeze for a thousand years—as far as God’s concerned there is no time limit. It’s eternity.”
“Are you religious?” I asked.
“I was raised Catholic,” he replied. “I still go to church. Personally, I think if the pope ever really thought about cryonics, he’d have to find in favor of it. Catholics are pro-life. So, if cryonics is proven to restore life, then it proves you were never really dead to begin with. So it’d almost be a sin not to. They’ve made cartoons about it. St. Peter tapping one little angel on the shoulder, sayin’, ‘You’ve gotta go back. They just thawed ya out.’ And the guy’s looking at him 'cause he’s got golf clubs or something like he’s playing golf—doesn’t wanna leave.”
When asked why he wanted to be frozen, Andy said only, “I don’t wanna die.” As for the kind of future he expects to find after emerging from his long sleep, all he could say was that he hoped it would be good.
“I remember when I first learned about death,” Andy reminisced. “We had a collie and she got hit by the school bus—slid on the ice, and it hit her and killed her. So we’re crying. I was in kindergarten. My brother was in first grade. It was a long, long time ago. What I remember was, dad had her on a sled. We just thought: Stand her up, she’ll walk; stand her up, she’ll walk. She was lying on her side, dead, but there was no external… no blood out of the nose or mouth. She wasn’t squashed. We just could not convince dad to stand her up and she’d walk. And he wouldn’t do it! Stand her and hold her! But we were just convinced. I just couldn’t get a grasp on that. We was convinced she was still alive or would be alive if you just stood her up.”
Roc’s new book, And, was released recently. You can find more information on his website.