A small but growing number of people are being shipped to America after they die, in the hopes of a second life.
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If everything goes according to plan, when Chris Chambers' heart stops beating his body won't be escorted to the morgue. His family won't be given the space or time to sit pensively with him. There will be no post-mortem. No burial. No cremation. None of this will happen, because Chambers* intends to skip death.
Like a fractional but growing minority, Chambers has put his faith in cryonics: the process of preserving the deceased at sub-zero temperatures, with the hope that the technology will one day exist to revive and cure them.
So, when Chambers dies, his body will instead be placed into a steel cask filled with ice, then taken to a funeral director's premises to undergo the process of being frozen below -65°c. His corpse will then make its way to Arizona, where it will be stored indefinitely in a vat of liquid nitrogen.
All of this will happen because Chambers has a membership with the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. If everything goes according to plan – and it's a massive if – he won’t be dying in this lifetime. Death would just be a legal technicality.
"I became increasingly convinced that it was entirely possible…and since I don't want to die it just seemed the straightforward thing to do."
"I got into cryonics about three years ago," says Chambers, a 36-year-old software engineer who is married and has two children, aged two and four. He has asked to remain anonymous due to the perceived stigma attached to people involved with cryonics. "I thought this was science fiction that would happen in the future, but I started doing a bit more reading around of the material available," he says. "I became increasingly convinced that it was entirely possible… and since I don't want to die it just seemed the straightforward thing to do."
The UK doesn't have an organisation with the necessary facilities for cryopreservation, so those looking to access such services need to have their body transported to a cryonics facility. The three main organisations are the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute, Arizona's Alcor Life Extension Foundation, or the relatively new KrioRus, located just outside of Moscow.
While the end goal of each cryonics provider is largely the same – the indefinite cryopreservation of human bodies – there are a few differentiating factors, namely cost. Alcor charges $200,000 (£150,000) for a full body cryopreservation, while the Cryonics Institute charges $28,000 (£21,000), as it has done since it was founded in 1976. The latter does not cover the cost of transporting the body, though. Industry newcomer KrioRus (founded in 2005) offers full-body cryopreservation for $36,000 (£27,000). For $18,000 (£13,500), users can store just their head.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Chambers took out a Zurich life-insurance policy in trust to Alcor, to the tune of £100 a month. It may be the most expensive of the three, but he was reassured by the organisation's longevity. The insurance policy, as well as his annual membership of $180 (£135), also covers the cost of transporting his body to the Alcor premises.
Chambers has completed the majority of the necessary paperwork and has informed his GP, who was happy to update his medical records. He has also told his family and friends, who were broadly supportive. There are a few periphery tasks he still needs to complete: it's advised he make a video with his loved ones where he explains his decision to undergo cryopreservation, in case his desires are challenged after his death. He admits that cryopreservation is not something his wife would be signing up to anytime soon.
"That's a really sad thought, I think, for both of us," says Chambers, reflecting on a scenario where he is revived long after his family has passed away. "But there isn't a neat way of squaring that circle. She can't have what she wants and I have what I want. Of course, I hope she changes her mind." Ultimately, though, it's not something he's overthinking. "I just think of it as life planning," he says. I don't want to die, I want to make sure my affairs are in order. I have a will... it's not a sure bet, but nothing is. You stick money in a bank, but the bank can go under."
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Though the number of people signed up to a cryonics provider is rising, it's still a highly uncommon practice. The Cryonics Institute has over 1,525 living members signed up globally, 104 of whom are UK-based. It also has 165 people currently frozen at its facility. Alcor has 1,171 full members, with 156 additional members cryopreserved.
At KrioRus, the Moscow-based facility, there are 58 people cryopreserved and over 400 people signed up, including a handful from the UK, according to co-founder Valerya Pride. "I have several clients from the UK, but [none] of them died – which is very good, of course," she says. "More and more people call us every day."
Cryonics drew intense interest from the British media in November of 2016, due to a high court legal battle between the divorced parents of a 14-year-old-girl who died of cancer. The girl – known only as JS – had expressed her desire to be cryopreserved, which her mother supported and her estranged father didn't. Eventually, the High Court ruled in the mother's favour.
The media exposure also led to a heightened interest in Cryonics UK – a non-profit group made up of volunteers. The group exists to assist its paying members (of which there are currently 45) and affiliates with cryopreservation upon their death, whether through offering advice on how best to navigate the logistical and legal ramifications of moving a frozen corpse across borders, or through literally arriving at a member’s death bed to freeze the body ready for transportation. It’s a procedure they’ve conducted 14 times.
Graham Hipkiss, a retired industrial chemist, was the fourteenth member of Alcor when he joined, and is also part of the Cryonics UK emergency standby team. Trained by Alcor, he’s taken part in five emergency callouts. Judging from the enthusiastic, detailed way he explains the process from memory, it's an experience he seems to relish.
"When it appears [a member] has only got a day or two left, we stand by the bed, or as close to the bed as we can get with our equipment," says Hipkiss. "As soon as they've been pronounced, we cool them down by putting them in an ice bath. We inject them with a lot of medications in order to stabilise the cells, and we pump the blood around the body to circulate the medications, but also to speed up the cooling process."
According to Hipkiss, the body is then transported to a funeral director's premises, where it is drained of blood and treated with a cryo-protectant chemical that removes most of the water. The body is then placed in a metal casket filled with dry ice. Once it reaches between -65°c and -70°c (which can take a few days), the casket is sealed, ready to be shipped over to the member's chosen cryonics provider.
"It's quite successful," says Hipkiss, "because when they arrive in America, when they get them to the cryonics provider they usually say there's about two-thirds of the dry ice still there… Lately, we've been getting about one [case] every six months."
However, it doesn't always go to plan. Complications are varied, ranging from the hostility of sceptical family members to hesitation over the cost of the Cryonics UK service (emergency callouts cost £27,870). Sometimes, paying members even ignore the advice given by Cryonics UK and fail to act fast enough.
"We had someone who was signed up for decades, but they were in denial about their own mortality, which didn't make any sense, bearing in mind they'd signed up," says Tim Gibson, an active member of Cryonics UK, who looks after the equipment and training, and takes part in the emergency callouts.
"It's quite easy to sign up. But when you actually have to pick up a phone and plan for your own death, then you're actually accepting the end."
Gibson, 46, signed up for his membership with Alcor at the age of 19, after seeing a TV show about cryonics and realising that it was not exclusive to the super rich (he is paying for his cryopreservation through a life insurance policy). As well as the lump sum figure for the emergency callout, Cryonics UK members pay a monthly fee (which varies depending on their involvement) to help with the ongoing costs of its equipment.
"It's quite easy to sign up," says Gibson. "But when you actually have to pick up a phone and plan for your own death, then you're actually accepting the end."
The good news for those who don’t act fast enough is that they won’t incur any costs. "We don't have any contracts with anybody," Gibson continues. "That's the fun part about what we do. They can have a contract with a storage provider, but we won’t sign anything because we cannot guarantee that we can even produce a team. We're all volunteers – nobody's under contract to the trust – so how can we offer you a contractual service? If we turn up, we turn up; if we don't, we don't. Take your chances. If we turn up we'll take the money. If we don't, you can have it back."
For all the confidence of those who believe technology will one day allow for the revival of the cryopreserved, the industry has plenty of sceptics. Clive Coen, professor of neuroscience at King's College London, is one of them. He suggests that those who practice cryonics have a misplaced faith in antifreeze, and fail to fully appreciate the permanent effects of oxygen deprivation on the brain.
"They gloss over all the incalculable and irreversible damage that the brain will have sustained during the preparatory processes," says Coen. "Just think what happens when you freeze a tomato. The cells in the brain are like billions of tomatoes – and they're protected by barriers that resist the rapid entry of antifreeze. If you cut corners by taking the brain below zero before it's been fully protected, there will be cellular rupture due to ice crystals – at trillions of sites."
"On the other hand," he continues, "if you infuse the antifreeze at high pressure to get it in fast, you'll cause pressure-induced cellular rupture. If you simply wait long enough for the antifreeze to access all the micro-nooks and crannies gradually – which might several days – the brain will be continuing to decompose. This densely packed organ is highly dependent upon the fuel it needs. Lack of oxygen for just a few minutes results in death of cells in the hippocampus that are required for making memories. The rest of the brain cells will die soon afterwards."
He goes on to suggest that unless any eventual resuscitation is instantaneous, the process of decay will resume. Given the sensitive, serious nature of what cryonics organisations are offering, it's perhaps a surprise that the growing industry isn't specifically regulated in the UK.
Tim Gibson would welcome an element of regulation – particularly as it would allow Cryonics UK to conduct a more efficient operation – so long as it isn't too restrictive. It would certainly make dealing with other organisations clearer; without the necessary standards of practice, getting in and out of hospitals to prepare their members for cryopreservation can be an arduous process, for example.
The Human Tissue Authority (HTA) regulates the removal, storage and use of human tissue (including for post-mortem examinations) and has been looking into the industry after the case of the 14-year-old girl in 2016 rose to national attention.
In a statement provided to VICE, an HTA spokesperson said: "Having spoken to a number of people involved in cryonics in the UK to gather information on the industry, the HTA considers it a relatively uncommon activity, which poses a low risk to the public. However, given its prevalence in the media when a case comes to public attention, uncertainties around the process and its efficacy, and the potentially vulnerable situation of service users, the HTA plans to publish guidance, signposting to where further information can be found to help people make an informed choice and learn more about the current scientific opinion on the process."
But even sceptics are willing to take a gamble with cryopreservation. Greg Williams*, a London-based banker, was recently diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer, one that's not usually found in 48-year-olds. As someone with a keen interest in futurology, cryonics is an area he's looked into before, if only out of mild curiosity. That’s certainly not the case now.
"It's very highly likely I'll die in the next ten or 15 years," says Williams, who asked to use a pseudonym as he hasn't yet discussed the matter of cryonics with his husband. "But it's highly unpredictable – it could be two years for all I know. So therefore, my return to the topic of cryogenics has got a bit more urgency in it."
Williams hasn’t signed up yet and needs more information before he does. As a banker, he is really only interested in one thing: value for money. Navigating the various options, though – transport costs, one-off payments, membership fees, life insurance policies – isn't easy.
"I'd go with the cheaper one, because I don't have that much faith in it ever working," says Williams. With incurable cancer, he's unlikely to be offered an insurance policy – but he would use up a portion of his life savings to cover the upfront costs, so long as he has enough to leave to his husband. "£25k I could afford… but I don't really want to pay £100k on something that might not work, because I'd like to leave that to my husband."
"At the moment I'm in research mode, and I know I'm not gonna die any time soon," he continues. "I've got at least a couple of years [of] treatment. But if a doctor said to me, 'Nothing's working, you've got to start preparing,' then I'd probably start thinking about it, and if the price was right I would do it. I'm lucky that I've been a banker all my life. I've got disposable income, I can afford it."
Technology has changed how we live, how we're born and now how we die. Many advocates of cryonics believe it will eventually eliminate death entirely, often citing the distance technology has already covered in a relatively short space of time (more than one interviewee referenced the fact CPR didn't exist 100 years ago). Williams is not so sure. But, ever a numbers man, he believes it might still be worth a punt.
"I'm certainly not a die-hard believer, and I don't think I ever will be," he says. "I would be doing it probably with a 90 percent conviction that I'll never be revived."
*Names have been changed.
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